Special Report
School & District Management

Water in Many Schools Isn’t Safe to Drink. Here’s What Districts Can Do

By Mark Lieberman — March 13, 2023 10 min read
Drinking fountains are marked "Do Not Drink Until Further Notice" at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Mich. on May 4, 2016.
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Ralph Spezio had been principal of Enrico Fermi School 17 in Rochester, N.Y., for a few years in the early 2000s when he realized he needed to take drastic action.

The number of students requiring special education services was soaring. Spezio kept noticing one child after another walking into school with rotting teeth. And efforts to provide students and their families with more robust health care weren’t moving the needle.

He convened a panel of social workers and psychiatrists to meet one-on-one with students over the course of a day. During a break, Spezio overheard two school nurses chattering anxiously about a student’s file. He asked them what they were talking about, and they shared, “Mr. Spezio, this child’s lead-poisoned.”

“I said, ‘they’re what?’” Spezio recalled in an interview this March.

Once he learned that lead poisoning was quite common among children in the region, and that the long list of potential health consequences includes lower IQ, Spezio was apoplectic.

“I brought the county, the city, the parents together. I insisted there’s no finger pointing,” Spezio said. “There’s enough blame to go around for everybody. We have to find a solution.”

Some of the necessary work involved strengthening inspections of old rental homes with lead-based paint and pipes. But some involved the place where students spend much of their daily lives—school.

On the latter issue—reducing children’s lead exposure in schools—both Rochester and the nation have made progress in the last two decades. A growing number of states now mandate or encourage districts to test water for lead. And schools are increasingly moving to replace traditional water fountains with filtered water stations that allow for easy bottle refilling and prevent contaminants from slipping through.

But more widespread awareness of lead and other contaminants in the water students and staff drink every day hasn’t translated to a sweeping nationwide effort to eradicate the problem once and for all. Instead, states and districts have embarked on disparate efforts to test for water contamination and modernize water systems, with widely varying results.

Recent testing in states like Delaware and Montana has revealed hundreds of school water fountains with lead levels significantly higher than even the highest thresholds deemed acceptable by some regulators in the U.S. And those states are further ahead than others—roughly half of U.S. states, including Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Texas—have no laws or regulations that require schools to test or monitor their water for lead.

If you are the principal or the superintendent, you are responsible for the health and safety of your children. If you are ignoring this, then you deserve to get your pants sued off of you.

Plus, lead is hardly the only water contaminant causing problems for schools. High levels of the toxic chemicals known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS have recently caused headaches for schools from Hermon, Maine, where cafeteria workers will have to use bottled water to make food for middle and high school students, to Cumberland County, N.C., where students have been drinking bottled water for three years, to Putnam County, N.Y., where the district is pursuing a lawsuit against chemical giants 3M, DuPont and others over their alleged role in the proliferation of those chemicals.

Meanwhile, the Jackson, Miss., schools have been enmeshed for years in an escalating citywide crisis of politics and infrastructure that has led to frequent water outages, school building closures, and widespread distrust of city and state services. Student athletes have been bused across county lines there to hydrate and take showers after practicing. When U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan visited in November 2021, 4th-graders called out to him from classrooms pleading for his help, the Washington Post reported.

The situation recalls the lead contamination catastrophe in Flint, Mich., which drew national attention in the 2010s to the fragility of water systems across the country, particularly in rural areas and disproportionately Black communities. The crisis contributed to a wave of concerns over rising needs for special education services in the district, Education Week reported in 2019.

The persistence of water problems leaves thousands of students in school buildings where bottled water is the only viable option, or where drinking water from a fountain or tap requires a leap of faith.

School and district administrators are on the front lines of this battle, even when the necessary investments to fix the problem can be prohibitively expensive. While lead levels in homes can be more severe than in school water fountains, even small amounts of lead exposure can put a dent in a child’s IQ, said Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University, who has spent decades tracking the health impacts of lead in schools and elsewhere.

“It sounds like a lot, but every study that’s looked at this has said it is cost-effective to identify these sources and remediate them,” Lanphear said. “The cost of children having some learning problems adds up, particularly when millions of kids are exposed.”

A push to drink water runs into cruel reality

In recent decades, efforts to steer children away from drinks that contain artificial sugars have prompted widespread campaigns urging water consumption as a healthier alternative. Regularly drinking water throughout the day can lower the risk of chronic diseases, improve memory and attention, and help prevent dental cavities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since 2010, the federal government has required schools that participate in the national school lunch program to also offer potable drinking water. But a push to drink more water has been complicated by the reality that water in many schools may not be safe to drink.

The federal government doesn’t have any mandates in place for schools to test and monitor water for contamination. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently says water systems don’t have to address lead levels below 15 parts per billion, or ppb, while some states set lower levels that prompt recommended or required remediation.

But researchers, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have asserted for years that no level of lead in water is safe for humans. Prolonged exposure can cause a drop in IQ and contribute to conditions like ADHD, behavioral problems, and incontinence. Pregnant women exposed to lead in drinking water face increased risk of miscarriage and other pregnancy complications.

The conflicting policies on when a school should take action to address lead cause confusion for districts, said Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental, and ecological engineering at Purdue University who has extensively studied water systems in schools across the country.

“You can live on one side of the [state] border and your children will be drinking 14 ppb of lead in water. On the other side of the border, it’s less than 1 ppb,” Whelton said.

School leaders often lack the health expertise to proactively develop plans to address lead contamination or respond to undesirable findings.

In Delaware, a pre-COVID push for school administrators to initiate their own water testing fell flat, as leaders struggled to find the time and figure out how to do the work, said Mark Holodick, the state’s secretary of education.

When Holodick, who took office in January 2022, more recently revived the state’s school water testing program, he tapped experts from local universities to serve as advisers on the process, and the department made direct contact with school administrators to ensure everyone was on the same page.

“We want to get more water filling stations in our schools, and we want to look for opportunities to put quality filters where necessary, where appropriate—all with the intent to get closer and closer to nondetectable levels of lead in drinking water,” Holodick said.

Even with motivation and technical guidance, the perceived or real costs of remediation often deter districts from looking into potential problems in the first place.

In Georgia, only 56 schools have taken up the state on its offer to pay for voluntary lead testing, and only 38—out of more than 2,000 across the state—have completed the testing process.

And in Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson last July signed legislation requiring that schools test their drinking water for lead and install filters if levels exceed 5 ppb. The legislation also set aside $27 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds for schools to tap for the testing and remediation. Eight months later, however, the state is still in the process of developing applications for districts to seek the funds and deciding how to prioritize schools with the biggest needs, said Mallory McGowin, a spokesperson for the state education department.

It’s far from an easy fix

Like many infrastructure challenges in schools, the problems can’t be solved overnight, even if everyone agrees on how best to tackle them.

“It’s not possible to wave a magic wand and have all water fountains or school drinking taps automatically go down to 1 ppb or less,” said Lanphear.

Instead, Lanphear believes the federal government should set a short-term lead action level of 5 ppb, and aim to get all lead levels in water down to less than 1 ppb by 2030. That way, schools could address lead contamination in stages.

Separately, a 2022 paper published in the American Water Works Association journal argued for significantly ramping up testing of water in schools and other buildings for high levels of copper, which has been shown to cause a wide range of health conditions.

And in 2020, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group identified more than two dozen schools in 18 states located close to factories that used PFAS in manufacturing. The group urged lawmakers to develop nationwide drinking water standards and to more stringently regulate monitoring of water systems for signs of the toxic chemicals.

Even without regulatory changes, schools have the power right now to get moving on these urgent concerns.

Robust testing of faucets, fountains, and pipes can help districts pinpoint the highest-risk areas and prioritize improvements to minimize costs, Whelton said.

Frequently flushing water systems is another key measure that researchers were able to test in unusual ways during the extended school building shutdowns that accompanied the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers used those school building closures to test the impact of failing to flush water systems as often as usual.

Maryam Salehi, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Memphis, led a research project in 2020 that involved testing three dozen schools in an unnamed Tennessee district, and suggesting a path to remediation.

Her team found that the unusually long periods of dormant time for pipes during COVID shutdowns of school buildings increased the likelihood of water contamination from lead once those pipes started working again.

Some of the fixes were simple, Salehi said. When staff come in on Monday morning, they should run the water for a minute or so to drain out any traces of lead that might have seeped in while the water was stagnant over the weekend. Even better, the district should find a way to ensure water is getting flushed regularly when buildings aren’t occupied.

The Tennessee district tried to solve that problem by asking employees to manually flush toilets and pipes on weekends and at night, but it proved challenging. A mechanical solution might be more worthwhile, Salehi said.

“They didn’t have enough workforce, they had only a few people,” she said.

Perhaps most crucial, experts said, is the ongoing effort to replace traditional water fountains with fillable water stations, which filter water before it reaches the consumer. West Virginia recently passed a law requiring all new schools to come equipped with those machines, joining states like Arkansas, California, and Ohio. Slightly more than one-quarter of districts surveyed last summer by ASBO International, an association of school business officers, said they used federal COVID-relief dollars to provide safer drinking water for students, including by installing filtered water stations.

In some older schools, installing those within existing mechanical frameworks might be trickier. But the cost isn’t necessarily prohibitive—an advocate told the radio station WHYY in Delaware that all 250 schools in the state could order five water filling stations for a total cost under $20 million.

Back in Rochester, N.Y., Spezio, the former elementary school principal who’s now retired, started the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning, an advocacy nonprofit that earned federal recognition for its leadership on addressing lead poisoning, including pushing for stricter regulations and educating the public.

The most important thing districts can do, Spezio said, is act.

“If you are the principal or the superintendent, you are responsible for the health and safety of your children,” Spezio said. “If you are ignoring this, then you deserve to get your pants sued off of you.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2023 edition of Education Week as Water in Many Schools Isn’t Safe To Drink. Here’s What Districts Can Do

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