(This report is part of the “Troubled Water” project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.)
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When Ceon Dubose Palmore got thirsty at school, an administrator had to escort the 15-year-old past trash-bag-covered fountains to a faucet two floors down.
Like many schools across the country, her Washington, D.C. middle school discovered lead in its drinking water, making most fountains unsafe to drink. It took months to install filters sporadically around the school.
Ceon rarely asked to get a drink from the working fountains since teachers didn’t want kids disrupting class time.
“It made it a lot harder for kids,” Ceon said. “I also think it impacted me a lot because I have problems with hydration and stuff, so if I couldn’t drink water, it would distract me for the day. It would get me in a lot of trouble.”
While schools often struggle with the aftermath of finding lead in their drinking water, education advocates and health professionals agree that there’s an even costlier scenario: not knowing at all.
A News21 analysis showed 44 states don’t require schools to check for lead, and the federal government doesn’t require it either. Thousands of schools scrambled to test after learning that lead had seeped into the public water supply and created a public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, but lead experts say the majority of schools across the country still don’t know what’s in their water.
John Rumpler, senior attorney at Boston-based advocacy group Environment America, said Flint may have brought attention to the lead issue, but it didn’t necessarily hit home.
“Most people thought this must be a problem somewhere else, in communities like Flint, but not necessarily where I get my water and certainly not where my kid goes to school,” he said. “It’s really important to educate the public about how widespread this problem is and how there’s likely a threat to their own children’s drinking water right where they live, whether it’s an urban community, a rural community or a suburban community.”
The responsibility to test overwhelmingly falls on cash-strapped school districts, which often don’t have the funds or incentive to make lead testing and remediation top priorities. In California, lawmakers trying to approve statewide mandatory lead testing have been met with strong opposition from some school districts that fear dealing with positive tests would cripple their bank balance.
“There is an aversion to both the monetary cost of fixing the problem and also to the public relations cost of fixing the problem,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech researcher who has long studied lead in schools’ drinking water. “The idea that schools would have to disclose to parents that there’s lead flowing out of drinking water taps and have to deal with the alarm and outrage that naturally would come from that, and then the issues of distrust, and then parents and communities wanting to get more involved – all of these things are … a headache.”
A widespread but unknown threat
For centuries, workers used lead for plumbing because the metal was malleable enough to mold into pipes, yet hard enough to resist corroding and leaking over time. Once scientists and environmental experts discovered that lead leached from pipes transporting water, Congress banned the use of lead pipes in a 1986 amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act.
However, Congress did not require schools to replace lead pipes, which means lots of school buildings still receive water from these fixtures. This is especially true in older, poorer neighborhoods, where replacing lead service lines means changing a city’s entire water infrastructure.
Although schools constructed before 1986 are most at risk of contamination, even newer buildings face a lead threat because the amendment still allowed pipes to contain small traces of lead. Congress had defined “lead-free” as no more than 8 percent lead in pipes, but it didn’t narrow the definition again until 2014.
“Unless your school was built in the last three years, or unless all the plumbing was replaced in the last three years, there’s some risk that lead is getting into your children’s water,” Rumpler said.
For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District installed brass fixtures to replace old lead ones at 131 of its schools in the last decade. The new fixtures still contain traces of allowable lead that taint schools’ water supplies beyond the EPA’s safe limit, according to a report by Environment America. District officials said they’re trying to replace them.
There’s no database that tracks how many schools voluntarily test, but thousands that have tested found lead in their pipes, according to results released by school districts nationwide in the last year. Eighty-three percent of 1,281 New York City public schools tested higher than the maximum level allowed by the EPA, while about half of Newark, New Jersey public schools found lead in their water.
Lead can cause significant damage to children
Lead, a powerful neurotoxin, is particularly harmful to children whose developing bodies absorb more of the contaminant than adults do. Numerous studies indicate that children exposed to high lead levels are more likely to perform worse academically and enter the criminal justice system. But even at low levels, exposure to lead over long periods of time can cause significant damage.
Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, has long studied the effect of low-level lead exposure in children. He said long-term effects of lead exposure include lowered IQ scores, antisocial behavior, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other learning disabilities.
Although studies have drawn strong conclusions about the effects of lead in children, science can’t always make immediate connections between exposure and potential damage.
When schools test high for lead, they often provide blood testing to children. However, because lead flows from blood into bones and joints within several weeks, blood tests don’t always detect the damage – especially since officials often conduct tests months after children have been exposed.
A child who drinks lead-tainted water might not show elevated blood lead levels a month or two later, but the harm persists in his or her body, according to a report by Environment America.
“You can have a kid that looks great and still has lead in their body,” said Dr. Morri E. Markowitz, pediatrician and director of the lead poisoning clinic at Montefiore Children’s Hospital in New York City. “Potentially, they’ve lost some IQ, but you can’t tell.”
Although lead testing might not be a top priority for many schools, environmental experts warn that widespread exposure can have serious implications for entire towns and cities. Mustafa Ali, a founder of the EPA’s environmental justice program, said lead exposure can impose a “lifetime burden” on children of color and their communities not only from a public health perspective, but also economically and educationally.
“In many instances, especially in our vulnerable communities, students already have all kinds of burdens that they’re dealing with, and then to add this additional burden from these toxic exposures is just crazy,” Ali said.
Government officials reluctant to address issue
Although the EPA recommends schools and child care facilities test for lead, the federal agency is only responsible for ensuring public water systems are lead-free before the water reaches schools’ pipes.
The result: Schools and child care facilities on public water systems are under no federal requirement to test their taps for lead. That means nearly 100,000 schools and half a million child care facilities aren’t regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to EPA data..
“We have ended up with a regulation that has given us the false sense of security that somebody out there is actually protecting us from lead in drinking water without having the small-print information that not only is that regulation absurdly inadequate, but it also doesn’t cover schools at all,” Lambrinidou said of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Only six states – Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Virginia – require schools to test for lead, according to a News21 analysis.
Water quality advocates say states may be reluctant to introduce mandatory testing because they feel they shouldn’t have to bear the financial burden of responsibility.
“It’s a game of passing the buck,” said Robert Bowcock, a water consultant to environmental advocate Erin Brockovich. “Schools want the districts to pay, districts want the state to pay, who in turn want someone else to pay.”
It’s unlikely federal legislation will change any time soon. Two Democratic senators – Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Cory Booker of New Jersey – reintroduced legislation in June that would require schools nationwide to test for lead and would provide grants for schools to replace their outdated pipes. However, the Republican-controlled Congress has resisted efforts so far. Some Republican senators believe it sucks too much money from the federal budget.
“Over 100 years, we’ve put this dangerous neurotoxicant into our public water delivery systems and now someone’s going to have to pay to get it out, and nobody really wants to do it,” Rumpler said.
Schools 'afraid' to test for lead
Although most states don’t require testing, some have introduced state-funded initiatives providing schools with free lead tests this year. The response has been mixed.
In California, the State Water Board released data showing that as of July, only 11 percent of the 13,000 K-12 schools signed up for free testing after it was made available at the beginning of the year.
School officials know that a positive lead test could result in weeks of construction work and a hefty bill – should they decide to address the issue properly.
Students at a school in San Ysidro, a low-income area near the Mexican border, will start three weeks later than planned this fall. The district is replacing drinking fountains, sinks, pipes and faucets at three schools after discovering elevated lead levels. It will cost $24 million.
“We had a bond that was passed by the local community and everything has been done within the confines of that,” said Julio Fonseca, superintendent of the San Ysidro School District. “It’s just a shame we allowed it to get to this point.”
When California lawmakers introduced the proposal to mandate lead testing, they made adjustments after strong opposition from school districts. The latest bill, AB 746, would require schools to test and shut off the water if the tests find elevated lead levels. However, the schools wouldn’t have to replace the fixtures and faucets, a concession meant to reduce the opposition, said the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher.
“Mandatory testing is the first thing we need to address,” she said. “Just because it’s expensive to remediate, are we not going to let ourselves find out there’s lead in our schools?”
Gonzalez Fletcher said that while the bill does not provide any long-term solutions, it’s an important first step. “One of the reasons we introduced this bill is because we know schools are afraid to know the extent of the problem – and that’s not good enough,” she said.
When Arizona launched a statewide lead-screening program in January, it began as a sample of “high-risk” areas based on age of building, ZIP code and the number of young children served. The program became so popular, however, that every public school – more than 11,000 – has volunteered to test.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality provides schools with free toolkits that include instructions, collection containers and prepaid shipping boxes to mail to local laboratories.
“What we wanted to do was help schools and screen their water for them rather than putting some kind of burden on them where they would have to pay for the costs,” ADEQ director Misael Cabrera said.
Cabrera said 96 percent of the schools have passed the screening. Arizona doesn’t require schools to replace pipes if they test positive for lead. It doesn’t have a program to help schools financially if they do find lead, and it’s unclear how these schools will respond.
School response to lead exposure varies
When 30 public schools in Newark, New Jersey, found lead in their water in March 2016, Superintendent Christopher Cerf released the district’s annual lead testing results to the public. The district cut off every water source, called parents and local organizations to solicit bottled water donations, and vowed to install filters on its fountains.
But it’s been a long process. One school, Weequahic High School, still has old filters. It has relied on water coolers for more than a year.
The lead problems at some of the schools date to the 1990s, when the school district first tested its faucets.
“I was not surprised as someone who was there when it was a problem 27 years ago,” said Kim Gaddy, a parent at Newark Public Schools. “I was more angry and disappointed that not only they didn’t catch it, but I also got comfortable thinking they were going to resolve or rectify the situation.”
Community organizer Maria Lopez Nuñez, who works with the Ironbound Community Corp. in Newark, said she isn’t shocked by the slow remediation process either, given Newark’s demographic makeup.
“I'm sure if this happened in one of our richer suburbs, it would be an issue that would be immediately remediated, or the people there would have the resources to start the remediation process themselves,” Lopez Nuñez said.
The district has spent close to $1.5 million on testing and remediation to contain its most recent lead crisis, said school business administrator Valerie Wilson. But lead, a persistent contaminant in Newark’s century-old schools, will likely remain a part of its legacy.
“We have determined what we want to do in terms of remediation to what I call an intermediate point where we’re not necessarily all the way there, but we can contain and ensure that all the time children have safe water, which is what’s most important to us,” Wilson said.
Schools that can’t afford to replace lead plumbing and fixtures have to resort to replacing fountains with coolers dispensing bottled water.
In Camden, New Jersey, the school district shut off its fountains in 2002 after the city found high levels of lead in its water. It spends about $100,000 every year on water coolers to supply clean drinking water to students.
“This is an issue that’s been going on in this city since the ’70s when we realized as a society that lead was unsafe,” said Maita Soukup, a spokeswoman for Camden City School District. “It’s not a new issue. Our school district’s approach is over 15 years old. I think everyone is happy that the district invests in the water coolers. That means we don’t have to be overly worried.”
In diverse school districts like Washington, D.C.’s, the response has been disparate between neighboring schools. When parents at a well-funded public school, Capitol Hill Montessori, learned from an education blogger in March 2016 that their school tested high for lead six months prior, they quickly met with school administrators and City Council members to find out why they weren’t notified and how the district planned on remediating the problem.
Soon, the scope of the problem grew. D.C. public schools retested all its schools’ faucets for lead because of an “increase in attention around the issue,” said Michelle Lerner, a spokeswoman for D.C. public schools. The majority tested high.
At Capitol Hill Montessori, parents said contractors installed new filters at all drinking water sources just weeks later. Teachers and parents donated bottled water to the school so that it’s available in every classroom.
Parents at the school said their advocacy initiated the citywide response of testing and installing filters, but some education activists say it took a well-funded school to draw attention to an established lead problem in D.C. public schools.
“It depends on who is actually whistleblower to make a story a story,” said LaTricea Adams, founder and president of Black Millennials for Flint. “It wasn't until a more affluent and less black and brown school made this call to action that we actually started to see D.C. respond.”
For other schools across the District, the response hasn’t been as quick. In Sousa Middle School, contractors installed filters at some drinking water sources last year, while other fountains are still shut off. Students had limited access to clean drinking water because their schools didn’t provide them with bottled or filtered water.
Samantha Davis, founder and executive director of the Black Swan Academy in Washington, D.C., said this disparate response stems from lack of outreach to schools she works with in the District’s poorest neighborhoods. Davis said parents at these schools are less likely to worry about water quality given the pile of other issues they must handle.
“We would’ve loved to see students being supplied with bottled water,” Davis said. “We would’ve loved to see some community forums held to educate the families and community members about the impact of lead exposure, and those were steps that weren’t taken that I think should have been, and can still be taken.”
Parents express concerns over lack of action
In a working-class area of Washington, D.C., J.O. Wilson Elementary tested high for lead in January after initial tests found lead, so contractors installed filters at the school. The school alerted parents 10 days after the city received sampling results, and it took nine days to shut off lead-tainted faucets, according to a City Council report.
After more than a year of flawed testing and faulty filters citywide, parents pushed the D.C. Council to introduce legislation requiring public schools to test water sources for lead, install filters and publish their annual lead testing results. The measure passed in July.
“The push at D.C. Council from constituents and concerned parents is probably the only reason that this gained traction, and there’s movement in terms of improving the legislation and improving the approach,” said Charles Swartz, a parent at Payne Elementary School in D.C.
And sometimes, parents simply want to know whether their children can drink the water at school.
A battery plant explosion in Maywood, a Los Angeles neighborhood, just over a year ago released high amounts of lead and magnesium into the community. Locals said the soil in their homes and schools tested positive for lead contamination, but the water hasn’t been tested at all. Tap water in the area varies from a cloudy, white color to a muddy brown.
As a precaution, Lily Hernandez, a mother whose 6-year-old daughter attends Fishburn Elementary School, donates cases of water to the school monthly.
“I feel safer because I’m supplying the water,” she said. “Trying to get something done is an ongoing battle. The parents are concerned, but our voices are often ignored.”