Local professor puts mark on water-testing bill

MIDDLEBURY — If state lawmakers pass a new bill aimed at ridding school water systems of lead, Middlebury College Prof. Molly Costanza-Robinson is one of several people Vermont students should thank.
Costanza-Robinson, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, provided key testimony at the Vermont Statehouse this past winter on her experiences testing water at Middlebury-area schools and on the importance of preventing people — especially children — from ingesting lead. Medical research has linked lead poisoning to brain and nervous system problems in humans.
Her contributions — and those of her students who assisted her in testing water at the nine Addison Central School District schools — helped inform the composition of bill S.40, which has passed the Senate and now reposes in the House Human Services Committee. The bill, among other things, proposes to require all schools and child care facilities in Vermont to test their drinking water outlets for lead contamination. If samples indicate lead at levels exceeding an “action level” defined of 5 parts per billion, the bill would require the school or child care facility to implement a lead remediation plan.
“A lot of the framework (of the bill) that we established, in terms of testing protocols and health-based levels of lead… we got from Molly,” said Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury, a member of the Senate Education Committee that worked on S.40 and interviewed Costanza-Robinson. “Her testimony was really important to our understanding of the problem and our understanding of how to go about legitimate testing protocols.”
National headlines drew Costanza-Robinson into Vermont’s water testing debate.
“I got interested in it largely because of the Flint case,” Costanza-Robinson said, alluding to a 2014 water crisis within that Michigan community. Insufficient treatment of water from the Flint River and lead contamination from aging pipes exposed more than 100,000 Flint residents to elevated lead levels.
“It was in the news, and whenever there’s interesting chemistry in the news that’s important, those are always important things to bring into the classroom,” Costanza-Robinson said. “So a couple years ago, I started teaching (the effects of lead in drinking water) in my Environmental Chemistry class, and doing lab projects associated with lead and water, and corrosion chemistry that leads to lead getting into the water.”
Having children in the Middlebury school system, Costanza-Robinson began to wonder what they and their classmates were drinking.
“I thought, ‘What’s in our water here?’” Costanza-Robinson recalled. “The big phrase that you’ll hear a lot with lead is, ‘You don’t know that it’s there unless you test.’ You can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, you can’t see it. You really only know if you do very careful analytical work. I got curious.”
Middlebury College’s chemistry department has high-quality equipment able to thoroughly test water. And the professor had a group of eager students willing to help with the fieldwork.
She approached Addison Central School District Superintendent Peter Burrows during the fall of 2016 about checking the quality of water flowing through faucets and drinking fountains in the ACSD’s nine schools. Costanza-Robinson also called colleagues at the Vermont Department of Health and asked about the extent to which public water had been tested.
“(DOH officials) said ‘You have good timing,’” Costanza-Robinson said. “Because they were just starting to design their own 16-school pilot test, but said it would have to wait until after the election due to new budgets and potentially a new governor.”
Costanza-Robinson had no reason to wait. She began planning water-testing protocols for Addison County schools, with input from the DOH.
“I wanted my Addison County work to match the methods they were going to use in their pilot,” she said.
With water testing protocols in hand, the professor and her students began gathering samples at Middlebury Union High School on April 17, 2017.
They tested every faucet and fountain at MUHS, as well as kitchen sprayers, ice machines and utility sinks.
“We found there were some issues,” Costanza-Robinson concluded.
Specifically, they found small traces of lead emanating from several water dispensing fixtures at MUHS. Nothing that set off alarm bells, but something testers felt ACSD should monitor and address — which it did.
“Our testing suggested there wasn’t anything systemic, like lead in pipes, but there were some outlets — particularly outlets that aren’t used much — where the water sits,” Costanza-Robinson said. “And that stagnation time is the major contributing factor.”
The crew expanded its testing to the other eight ACSD schools in Middlebury, Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. They visited most schools twice — with the initial visit being a walk-through with a district official familiar with the building in question.
“We would figure out, as best we could, the flow patterns of water through the school,” she said.
That flow pattern informed the order in which students gathered their water samples.
“We wanted to sample outlets in a certain order, so that as you’re taking samples, you’re not disrupting the samples in the other locations,” Costanza-Robinson explained. “You want to go upstream to downstream.”
Costanza-Robinson stressed to her students the importance of accurate water testing. One false step — such as not letting the faucet run long enough prior to taking a sample — can produce a false reading. Their guide was what she called the “bible” for testing water in schools: The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s “The Three T’s for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools and Child Care Facilities.”
The three T’s stand for “training, testing and telling.”
“The lead testing is easy to do, but it’s also easy to do wrong,” she said. “It’s a great project for teaching students and getting them to pay attention to those details and help them realize there’s real-world consequences to these numbers and getting them right.”
Participants gathered two kinds of water samples from each school:
•A “first draw” — the first 250 milliliters (around a cup) of water to exit the faucet after sitting overnight. It replicates what a student could drink from the tap upon entering school that morning.
“That gives us a sense of exposure levels,” Costanza-Robinson said.
•A “flush” sample, gathered after the tap water has run for 30 seconds.
“It’s basically by comparing the lead levels in those two samples that we can get a sense of, ‘Are the pipes the problem, or is the faucet the problem?’” Costanza-Robinson said.
The crew again found lead issues — fortunately none super alarming — at various water outlets in the schools. Costanza-Robinson cited Middlebury Union Middle School and Mary Hogan Elementary results as drawing the most scrutiny.
Based on the crew’s findings, ACSD officials identified the most troublesome water fixtures and switched them out, according Burrows.
As with MUHS, lead issues were traced to specific water fixtures, and not to pipes, which would have presented more serious problems. The fixtures aren’t made of lead, but some of them have lead in them, Costanza-Robinson noted.
“The phrase I repeated often in the Statehouse is, ‘Lead-free doesn’t mean free of lead,’” she said with a smile. “And the definition of ‘lead-free’ has changed over time.”
For example, the 1986 Safe Drinking Water Act allowed a fixture to be called lead-free, even if 8 percent of it was made of lead. Vermont in 2011 rejected that lead-free definition and reduced it to a level 33 time less than the federal 8-percent rule, according to Costanza-Robinson. State officials also forbade the installation in Vermont schools of new water fixtures that exceeded the more rigorous lead-free standard.
She advised district officials to take the most concerning water fixtures off-line, which they did.
Costanza-Robinson’s report on the MUHS water system can be found at tinyurl.com/y4drt6fj. She’s been issuing reports for each school, with one left to turn in, on MUMS.
Statewide, older fixtures with lead content continue to be used at many Vermont public schools, and S.40 is trying to address that issue. The bill includes around $2.5 million to help districts test water and replace lead bearing fixtures.
Rep. Caleb Elder, D-Starksboro, is one of five House Education Committee members who voted against advancing S.40. He stressed his opposition was based on his desire to see more of the state’s limited resources used for helping school districts replace lead bearing water infrastructure, rather than using the bulk of the $2.5 million for testing.
“I favor the federal, ‘get the lead out’ approach,” Elder said.
Praise continues to pour in for Costanza-Robinson and her young charges.
“It’s fabulous she took the time out to come and testify, and I would love it if more Middlebury College professors with expertise would do that,” said Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, who chairs the House Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee.
Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, sits with Elder on the House Education Committee.
“Her work in the ACSD has been very valuable, as a pilot, on what might be found in other schools around the state,” said. Conlon, who also chairs the ACSD board. “There’s definitely awareness that lead in fixtures might be an issue when water first is run.”
Burrows said, “It was great to have someone with her expertise to reach out, and I think it’s a great example of our relationship with Middlebury College. She did all this on her own time, and is really committed to this as an issue as well… She’s also been helpful along the way to help us understand (the water testing), and understand it within the context of the new legislation that’s coming.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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