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Lead In Drinking Water

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Unfortunately, many school districts haven't tested for the presence of lead. The Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988 required the EPA to publish guidelines to help schools test for lead in drinking water, but the tests weren't mandated--and schools were given no additional money to conduct them.

As Carolyn Henrich of the National PTA points out, some school officials avoid testing for lead because, once the tests are performed, the district must make the results available to teachers, students, and parents. If the tests reveal unsafe lead levels, administrators have to deal with the public pressure for prompt action, which the district may not be able to afford.

If school districts haven't tested for lead, teachers should urge administrators to do so, says Alexander of the AFT. "We recommend that they ask for test results and for some assurance that the problem has been abated,'' she notes. If teachers aren't satisfied that their concerns have been addressed, they should talk with public-health officials in their area.

Concerns about water quality can be expressed more forcefully if teachers have some background information. The EPA's Beth Hall suggests that teachers start by finding out where the water they drink at school comes from. "That's a question people don't ask often enough,'' Hall says. This, and other similar questions, can also serve as a topic for classroom study; the issues can be brought to life through visits to local watertreatment plants or through in-school water-conservation projects.

Schools with their own well or spring--there are about 10,000 of them nationwide--face special concerns. In the past, federal regulations required these small systems to ensure that their water was free of nitrates, bacteria, and other contaminants, such as lead, that can cause acute health problems. But new regulations being phased in during the next few years will force these schools to test for more than 100 potential contaminants.

Teachers can lower lead exposure by taking a couple of practical steps. First, if a faucet hasn't been used for more than six hours (overnight, for example), run the water for 30 seconds to a minute to flush away any lead that leached into the water while sitting in the pipes. (It's probably not practical to flush refrigerated drinking fountains because they have to run for about 15 minutes.) In addition, because hot water dissolves lead more quickly than cold water, use only cold water from the tap when preparing foods and beverages.

For more information, teachers can call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791. In addition to information about drinking water, teachers can obtain lists of lead-lined water coolers, the names of state contacts for drinking water problems, and details on how to order EPA publications. One especially useful manual, Lead in School Drinking Water, includes extensive details on testing and remedial options. The EPA has also developed a one-hour training video of the same name.

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