Early Childhood

Advocacy Group Recommends Testing Water at Child-Care Centers for Lead

By Marva Hinton — August 28, 2018 5 min read
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The Environmental Defense Fund is calling on child-care center operators to take steps to make sure the water at their facilities is not contaminated with lead, a neurotoxin known to cause behavior and learning problems, hyperactivity, and lowered IQ scores.

Researchers with EDF oversaw water tests from 11 child-care facilities in four states, using stricter standards than those required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Though most of the water tested came back free from lead contamination, some water sources had lead levels above 3.8 parts per billion, the EDF’s action level. That’s much stricter than the action level set by the Environmental Protection Agency, which recommends remediation when the lead level in a water source exceeds 20 parts per billion. A few of the samples collected exceeded the EPA’s action level, and the EDF notes that there are no safe levels of lead exposure, a view shared by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a study published this summer, the EDF is encouraging centers to test their water and is calling on the EPA to lower its action level.

The study examined a lead testing and remediation protocol for child-care facilities that was developed by the EDF. This protocol builds on the EPA’s guidance for schools and child-care facilities.

“What we really wanted to do was shine a spotlight on a gap,” said Lindsay McCormick, the study’s lead author and an EDF project manager. “Nationally, there is considerable attention, although one might argue still not quite enough, on the issue of lead in water in schools. We’re particularly interested in focusing on child-care facilities because it’s gone largely unnoticed.”

McCormick says that’s concerning because children younger than six are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead. The study also mentions that infants who consume formula mixed with drinking water receive the most exposure.

Despite these health risks, the study notes that only seven states (Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington) and one city, New York, require licensed child-care facilities to conduct testing for lead in drinking water.


The researchers used local partners in Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, and Ohio to test for lead at 11 child-care facilities. Nine were located in commercial buildings, and two were in converted homes. Together the centers served nearly 1,100 children from mostly low-income families.

The local partners selected the centers using criteria provided by the researchers, who wanted to sample water from centers that served children from low-income families, as well as centers housed in a variety of physical structures.

In an expansion of the EPA guidance, the EDF protocol calls for research first to determine whether the child-care center was served by a lead-service line, which is the pipe that connects the water under the main to the facility or house. When these lines are present, McCormick says they represent the primary source of lead in water.

EDF supervised the collection of multiple water samples over two days from every fixture and from every water heater drain. This step goes beyond EPA guidance, which simply recommends only drinking cold water. All of the samples were sent to a lab for testing, and two-thirds of them were also tested using a portable-lead meter, another departure from EPA guidance.

The lab found that more than 80 percent of the samples tested below detectable lead levels. But seven of the 11 facilities had at least one drinking water outlet that tested above the EDF’s action level of 3.8 parts per billion.

Three of the facilities had fixtures test above the EPA action level, two of which had at least one fixture test at levels greater than 80 parts per billion.

Fixtures that tested more than 3.8 parts per billion were replaced. That number dropped to less than 2 parts per billion at the centers in Chicago based on the requirements of what is now a state law there.

The EDF oversaw remediation at those seven facilities, which included replacing fixtures at six of them and replacing lead-service lines at two centers.

The remediation effort also included adding filters to some faucets and draining and flushing some water heaters.

Follow-up testing was conducted on all of the replaced fixtures to make sure the problem was resolved. In some cases, replacement didn’t drive down the amount of lead present as much as anticipated, and the researchers attributed that partly to standards that allowed lead to be added to brass fixtures. But the levels did decrease over time.


In addition to calling on child-care operators to test for lead in the drinking water at their facilities, the researchers also made several other recommendations including that any lead-service lines be removed from child-care facilities and that fixtures should be flushed for at least five seconds before use to cut down on the amount of lead present.

The researchers also recommended that local health departments help with lead testing and that public utilities assist child-care centers in removing lead-service lines. They also called on the EPA to lower its action threshold for lead.

Mario Perez is the executive director of El Hogar Del Nino, an early-childhood education center in Chicago that was a part of the study.

“I think all childhood centers should provide the safest environment possible for children,” said Perez.

The EDF covered remediation costs for his center, including the replacement of a lead-service line.

Perez questioned how most centers would be able to afford such costly repairs without assistance.

“In order to achieve the greatest impact, the state has to figure out how it’s going to fund early-childhood centers to be able to meet the requirements that they’re asking for,” said Perez.

McCormick says several more states, including California, are looking into requiring lead testing of water at child-care facilities. The legislation under consideration there would provide funding to help child-care centers cover the costs.

Image by Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.