As families across the country dive into a new school year, we thought now would be a good time to provide some context when it comes to drinking water in schools and child care facilities. This is especially relevant, as you may have read news stories about Detroit Public Schools recently shutting off their drinking water because of reports of elevated levels of lead or copper.
First, U.S. water utilities are required to monitor and mitigate lead and copper in our drinking water. Under the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that utilities monitor drinking water directly at customers’ taps for lead and copper. If lead levels go over 15 parts per billion or if copper levels go over 1.3 parts per million in more than 10% of the pipes they sample, utilities must take immediate steps to control corrosion in the pipes.
As a further step to protect their customers if elevated lead levels are found, water utilities may have to replace lead service lines in their care, and they must let their customers know how to protect themselves.
Keep in mind that when water leaves your local water utility after it has been treated, it doesn’t have lead in it. However, lead can leach into water through pipes that are delivering it from the utility to homes, businesses and schools. Exposure may also happen if the water comes into contact with a building’s lead plumbing fixtures. This is more common for older buildings, and since many schools are in older buildings, they may be susceptible to lead problems.
So we have a real problem if children, who are already particularly vulnerable to the long-term effects of lead exposure, are spending a great deal of time in schools, which may have lead materials in the plumbing or fixtures based on the age of the buildings.
The water industry is currently working hard to address this issue, and there are a couple of things in the works. As of a few years ago, under revisions to the Safe Drinking Water Act, all pipes and plumbing fixtures installed must meet lead-free specifications. So, when utilities repair or replace their water service lines, lead-free items must be used. Additionally, many utilities around the country are developing plans or have already started lead service line replacement programs.
The EPA is also currently in the process of revising the LCR. Those revisions are expected to be finalized in early 2019. It’s not completely known what those revisions will involve, but it mostly likely will require, among other things, that water utilities fully implement lead service line replacement programs, demonstrate effective corrosion control methods and provide outreach to customers about lead when necessary.
There are also steps parents and schools can take to further protect children against lead. Testing your water for lead, flushing your water before use and using a home treatment device (if desired) can be considered to prevent lead exposure through drinking water. More can be found on DrinkTap’s Lead In Water page.
The mission of all water utilities is to provide safe drinking water and to safeguard public health, which means protecting against lead. Water utilities are committed to proactively helping administrators at schools and child care facilities understand how to safeguard against lead, and many are making use of the outreach materials AWWA has available.
All of us, water utilities, school and child care facility administrators, and parents, share the responsibility to “keep the lead out” to protect ourselves and our youngest water consumers, children.