Toward the end of last school year, my son got a letter home from his school saying that the water fountains were being shut off because high levels of lead had been found in the water at his school. But not to worry, I was assured, the problem would be solved ASAP, and no one at the school was in danger.
To be honest, I was taken aback for a second, but the end of last school year was so full and stressful, I just filed it away as one of those things I would think about later.
Well, it turns out I actually should have been quite concerned because this sort of thing is a problem not just in my son’s school district, but across the nation.
And the fact is, even if school districts end up testing and “fixing” their problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are no federal regulations for how these repairs are made, and no law saying that any school has to test their water in the first place, on an ongoing basis, or at all.
This should shock you. This is not okay.
The Washington Post reports that ever since the water crisis in Flint, Michigan (which is still an ongoing crisis and should not be ignored), there has been a huge uptick of schools across the U.S. feeling the pressure to get their water tested for lead. And the results have not been good. Frankly, they are terrifying.
“Unfortunately you find schools that are failing, and some are failing miserably,” Robert Barrett, chief operating officer for Aqua Pro-Tech Laboratories, an environmental testing laboratory, tells the Washington Post. “Before Flint, we’d get a call maybe once a month from a school. Now, it’s daily,” he said.
In New York City Public Schools, where my son is a student, it was found last year that 83% of the school buildings had at least one outlet with high levels of lead.
And if that shocked you, check out what happened in Oregon just last year. During the 2016–17 school year, it was reported that 99% of Oregon Public Schools had lead in their water.
Yep, you read that right, and no it is not a joke. Not at all.
But there’s more. School districts is San Diego have had to shut down their water fountains because of lead, and schools across California are experiencing a crisis in their water systems, with many of their schools (and students) testing high for lead. Similar crises have been reported in New Jersey, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.
And let’s be very clear: There is no amount of lead that is acceptable for a child (or anyone, for that matter) to be exposed to. As the Washington Post explains it, even small amounts of lead can have devastating effects on our kids:
“[L]ead can cause serious and irreversible damage to the developing brains and nervous systems of young children. The result can be lasting behavioral, cognitive and physical problems. In short, it can alter the trajectory of a child’s life.”
This is serious business, folks, and every last one of us should take note and be duly concerned.
Besides the fact that schools are under no legal obligation to get their water tested, and have no protocol in place for how to deal with a problem once it’s detected, the Washington Post explains that most school buildings are so old, and most school districts are so underfunded, that these problems are nearly impossible to solve.
Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech engineering professor and expert on lead contamination in water, tells the Washington Post that most school districts only test their water because of outside pressure, often from concerned parents. “The pressure usually comes from the outside,” says Lambrinidou. “When schools sample, it’s more often than not because they have been squeezed into a corner.”
And even when a school tests the water and declares it safe, Lambrinidou says this is not foolproof in the least. As the Washington Post describes it, “[L]ead can appear sporadically in a water system as particles break off or leach into the water at unpredictable times — something researchers call the ‘Russian roulette’ phenomenon. That situation can be exacerbated in schools, where water can sit stagnant in pipes over weekends and holidays.”
Talk about nightmare scenarios.
So what can be done about this glaring and frightening problem?
Besides demanding that your school district test its water — and not just once, but periodically — just continue to make your voice heard. Make sure your school district knows how unacceptable it is for children to be drinking water with any amount of lead it in, and that should lead be found in the system, alternatives should be offered to students. Baltimore schools, for example, have been providing their students with bottled water until they can be certain that their water is lead-free.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to urge our government officials to make the testing, regulation, and remediation of our children’s school drinking water a federal mandate, with funding poured into programs that will guarantee clean water for our children.
Children go to school to learn, be nurtured, and feel safe. No parent should have to be worried about their child ingesting poisonous amounts of lead during the school day, or ever. Let’s fix this.