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Water Fountains May Pose Lead Risk

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Washington--The water fountains in many schools contain unacceptably high levels of lead, health experts have told a House subcommittee.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment last month, two researchers who have studied the problem said that ''water from electric water coolers can be very high [in lead content] and can pose quite high toxicity risk for all individuals."

And because children are more susceptible to lead poisoning than adults, they said, school water coolers may pose a serious public-health risk.

The way water coolers are used, the researchers said, increases the risk of lead exposure. Students tend to drink water without letting it run first, they noted, thus ingesting lead that may have leached into the water overnight or during a weekend.

The two researchers, Paul Mushak, adjunct professor of pathology at the University of North Carolina, and Annemarie F. Crocetti, adjunct associate professor of community and preventative medicine at New York Medical College, presented the preliminary results of a report prepared for the Public Health Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The full report, stalled last year when the two charged that a previous draft had been "watered down," will be presented to the Congress by the end of February. (See Education Week, June 24, 1987.)

The researchers estimated that as many as 3.8 million children and 5 million pregnant women and women of childbearing age have elevated levels of lead in their blood. For about 250,000 of the affected children, they said, the elevated levels can be attributed to lead in drinking water.

Previous research has shown that children who have been exposed to high levels of lead have a greater likelihood of developing learning disorders and a number of physical ailments.

In their testimony, the researchers said the epa's proposal to lower the standard for acceptable levels of lead in water from 50 parts per billion to 20 parts per billion may not be stringent enough. They noted that children and fetuses can be adversely affected by lead at even lower levels.

The epa has announced that it will delay instituting the lower lead standards at least until next fall. The agency had originally said that a final rule to lower the standard would be released in June.

Jeanne Briskin, a special assistant to the director of the office of drinking water, said the delay was due to the "complications" posed by the lead issue.

She said the agency was considering a new strategy of requiring that water suppliers decrease the corrosiveness of their water. The more corrosive the water, she explained, the more lead leaches into it.

Ms. Briskin said the agency would issue a pamphlet in February telling school officials how to test for lead in their water fountains.--ef

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