How Safe Is the Drinking Water at Your Child's School?

A 2009 study by the Associated Press found contaminants in the water of schools in all 50 states. To parents familiar with school districts' efforts to erradicate asbestos, lead paint and mold, this news may come as a shock. Most at risk are schools with their own well-water systems: one out of every five was found to have violated the Safe Drinking Water Act in the past decade. Well water may be contaminated with coliform bacteria, pesticides, nitrates, arsenic and other pollutants and poses long-term risks to children’s developing bodies. While these contaminants may not be as much of an issue in schools that draw from more strictly regulated community water systems, lead leaching from solder in water pipes may still pose a problem. Mae Wu, a health attorney for NRDC, explains the concerns and provides advice.

Q: Why hasn’t the testing of school drinking water been an issue until now, given the attention paid to lead, asbestos, mold and pesticides on school grounds?

MW: It may not be in other parts of the country, but in Washington, D.C., we had really elevated levels of lead in water, so it’s been a concern here for years. The hardest problem with lead is that it’s a pipe problem. The utility will fix up everything right up to the property line. That leaves the schools to replace their own pipes. People say that lead paint is the largest source of lead, but lead in drinking water also causes elevated blood levels. If there’s a source of lead getting into children’s bodies that we know about, we should go after it.

Q: Schools are turning to bottled water as a cheaper option than replacing the pipes. Is there something else they should be doing?
MW: Within a local school district, how they divvy up money for roads versus  pipes will always be a problem. Schools and parents should call on their local councils to ensure that there is sufficient funding for new pipes. In any case, the EPA has a rule that bottled water can be used only as a temporary fix, not as a permanent solution to provide compliance. Bottled water is a huge expense that schools could otherwise use to improve pipes.

Q: What can parents do immediately to ensure that their child’s drinking water is safe?

If a school is on its own well, parents are probably worred not only about lead but about many other contaminants, which are problems generally for small communities that rely on well water. One option is to call for schools to  put filters on their water fountains. Another is to send a child to school with filtered water from home. Parents can request a report from their water utility to see if water at home might be contaminated too. [If so, let us know the results!]  For bigger schools, lead would likely be the main concern. In that case, bringing filtered water from home would be a better, short-term solution. 

Q: What should parents do now to ensure their school provides safe drinking water?

MW: Unfortunately, while asking for the local utility’s report is a good idea generally, it won’t tell parents what’s happening in their school’s drinking water. Lead testing, however, isn’t that expensive. Parents can test the water themselves (or have the principal do it) for $30 to $40 and then push the school to do something about it. They should raise a fuss and demand that the district do something.

Stimulus Funds
As a second round of stimulus funds becomes available to states, schools that suffer from lead leaching from old pipes will have another chance to receive aid. Stimulus money is available only for "shovel-ready" projects, so parents should urge school districts and city councils to plan for an overhaul of school plumbing as soon as possible. If administrators insist on corrosion-control chemicals as a cheaper alternative, find out which chemicals are used, how effective they are at lowering lead and copper levels and whether the chemicals themselves pose any health threats.

For more on testing, see Testing Schools and Child Care Centers for Lead in the Drinking Water and the National Lead Information Center on the EPA’s Web site.

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