Concerned about lead levels, state urges schools to test water

Officials are recommending that all schools in Vermont test for lead in their drinking water after an initial round of testing showed elevated lead levels at some schools in the state.
The recommendation came in a report released Thursday about a school lead testing pilot program of 16 schools around the state led by the Agency of Natural Resources, the Vermont Department of Health and the Agency of Education.
“There is no safe level of lead in the human body,” said Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine in a statement Thursday. “We have an obligation to ensure that students and school staff have safe drinking water, and one thing this project made clear is that you have to test the water to know if there is lead in it.”
The agencies do not recommend a lead testing mandate, saying that the state does not have the capacity to provide comprehensive testing at every school around Vermont.
“If a requirement for lead in drinking water testing were placed on schools, additional resources would be needed to provide support and technical assistance,” the report says.
The pilot program tested lead levels from individual taps and faucets at schools on public drinking water supplies, as amounts of the heavy metal can vary within the same building. Of the 900 taps tested, 27 had “elevated” lead levels of 15 parts per billion (ppb) or higher. Those plumbing fixtures were all either replaced or taken out of service, according to the report.
At least three taps in every school in the pilot, or 17 percent of taps tested, had lead levels higher than the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended maximum of 1 ppb.
Children absorb lead more easily than adults, and lead poisoning can cause brain damage and other developmental impairments. The effects of lead poisoning are irreversible. In 2016, 480 Vermont children had elevated lead levels.
Schools that use public drinking water are not required to test for lead because municipalities already do so. Public drinking water systems are tested at water sources and in certain homes, but not at schools, said Lori Cragin, director of the Vermont Health Department’s environmental health division, in an interview last week.
Only schools that rely on well water and have an enrollment of at least 25 students are required to test their water — the wells are regarded by the state as public water sources. However, the tests do not involve all taps or fountains in a school. About 150 schools in Vermont have private water sources and 25 or more students.
Most state efforts to date have focused on reducing dust from lead paint — the biggest source of lead poisoning in children.
The Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis garnered national attention about the dangers of inadequately treating and testing drinking water for heavy metals. After neighboring New Hampshire and New York passed laws mandating lead testing in school drinking water, the state launched the pilot program to assess how prevalent lead is in the water Vermont school children drink.
Although Vermont was one of the first states to pass legislation lowering lead levels in new plumbing fixtures, the state has older schools that have fixtures more likely to have lead, according to the report.
Lead levels in drinking water can generally be reduced by low-cost solutions, like replacing outdated plumbing fixtures and encouraging the use of centrally located drinking water stations, according to the report. It noted that all filtered water “bottle fill” stations tested had lead levels below 1 ppb.
In the pilot program, sampling took one person one to two hours at smaller schools, and three to six hours at larger schools. The Vermont Department of Health offers lead tests for $12 each.
“The good news is that when lead was found, the fixes were relatively inexpensive,” Levine said in a statement sent out with the report. “Most schools are able to fully test all their taps for $800-$1,200. Removing a tap from service and replacing the fixture was typically done for less than $500.”
Environmental and public interest advocates this month sent a letter to statewide education leaders urging them to collaborate on a plan to test for lead and the toxin compound PFAS in school drinking water.
The education leaders have requested a meeting with the advocates about school drinking water testing, said Jeffrey Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

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