We must do more to safeguard schools’ drinking water

You might assume that since environmental health experts discovered lead in Flint, Michigan’s water supply in 2015 and a courageous pediatrician spread the word, strong federal laws have been put in place to require testing schools’ drinking water for the neurotoxin.

You would be wrong.

No federal law requires that school districts test drinking water for lead. Yet everyone agrees that exposure to lead is especially dangerous for young children. It can slow growth and development, damage hearing and speech, and cause learning disabilities.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office just released a report that looked at the extent to which school districts are testing for lead; which states require or support lead testing; and how extensively federal agencies are backing these efforts.

The GAO’s conclusion is front-and-center in the title: Lead Testing of School Drinking Water Would Benefit from Improved Federal Guidance.” It’s a bit understated, maybe, but we get the point.

The report is based on a random sample of more than 500 public-school districts, and site visits or interviews with 17 districts in Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Texas that had experience testing for lead.

In the random sample, 41 percent of the districts did not test for lead in 2016 or 2017, and 16 percent did not know (how could they “not know”?) if tests had been conducted. Of the districts that conducted testing, 37 percent discovered “elevated lead.” These districts took a variety of steps in response, including replacing water fountains, installing filters, or providing bottled water.  


In the states that require testing (at least eight, according to the Environmental Protection Agency), few standards mandate how the tests should be done. For instance, should every source of drinking water be tested, or just some?

There are few requirements for how often water should be tested, or what levels of lead are high enough to require action. School districts “select their own action level, resulting in different action levels between districts.”

Just a couple of weeks after the GAO report, two experts in toxicology and environmental health wrote in The New York Times that while it is unacceptable for any child to be exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water, “labeling Flint’s children as ‘poisoned,’ as many journalists and activists have done…unjustly stigmatizes their generation.”

I completely agree that we shouldn’t stigmatize any child. When we do, we set limitations that threaten to confine their dreams and keep them from reaching their potential, or even fully appreciating all that they are capable of. As an educator, I would never want to do that.

But I don’t believe that’s what happened in Flint. When I think of the actions taken by members of the Michigan Education Association and the United Teachers of Flint and recall my visits to the city and conversations with educators, it’s clear the response was not to label anyone with a “Scarlet L.” Educators wrapped their arms around kids and families.

They didn’t stigmatize their students or assume they were doomed. They demanded answers and action to end the manmade crisis. They wanted those who were responsible to be held accountable for their actions, and so far, 15 current and former officials face criminal charges. These educator-activists continue to do all they can to make sure this does not happen to their kids—or any kids—again.

While the GAO report is based only on a sampling of school districts, the results underscore that lead-tainted water is an issue nationwide. Clearly, we need more federal rules for how often districts should test and what levels of lead require immediate action.

Says Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician and author of What the Eyes Don’t See, whose crusade alerted Flint and the nation to the city’s water crisis: “People thought we took care of lead. They thought it was a problem of yesterday. But lead is a problem of today and it’s a problem of tomorrow and we’re fortunate that people are now paying attention to it.”

It’s worth noting that nearly three years after the Flint crisis was uncovered, citizens remain under an advisory to drink filtered or bottled water. Six thousand pipes have been replaced, but there are 9,000 more to go.

Read here to find out how you can limit your own exposure to lead in drinking water.


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