Image by Jason Gillman from Pixabay

September 16, 2019; WRAL-TV (Raleigh, NC)

Persistent exposure to lead, we now know, damages kids’ brains. But most school districts, even after America woke up to the perils of Flint’s dangerous water five years ago, are still not inspecting their fountains and faucets for toxic lead levels. What’s up? Wouldn’t this be an issue that could unite politicians across the aisle to decisively act? But like many public policy issues, jousting forces are at work, including public officials’ proclivity to “pass the buck” and opt for silence rather than transparency, and the persistent underfunding of our public schools.

Lead used to be the material of choice for plumbing, both malleable enough to bend and sufficiently hard to resist flaking and crumbling over time. (Think of the ancient Romans.) Congress, in 1986, reacting to indisputable scientific evidence, banned the use of lead pipes in an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act. But—and this is particularly relevant for older, poor and minority neighborhoods with aging school buildings—the law did not compel schools to replace existing lead pipes. Admittedly, in 1988, Congress moved to require states to develop plans to eliminate lead in schools and daycare centers. But eight years later, a federal appeals court struck down the law arguing that it violated the Tenth Amendment. Now, the federal EPA is only responsible for ensuring that public water systems are lead-free before the water reaches a school’s pipes.

Fast forward to 2014 and the Flint water crisis. In reaction, between 2016 and 2018, fifteen states and the District of Columbia decided to act and passed laws governing lead testing of school tap water. A few mandated testing. Some only encouraged it, and only some required parental notification of test results.

This year, a report from the nonprofit Environment America reviewed 32 states’ laws and regulations for protecting children from lead in water at school. 22 states got an F grade, ranging from Alabama and Louisiana to Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. Higher grades of C+ were given to California and New York because they require schools to test for lead, include enforcement measures, provide clear guidance for how the testing should be conducted, and specify what agencies are responsible for which tasks.

The District of Columbia, with a B+, got the highest ranking. This jurisdiction requires filters at every school tap, establishes a standard stricter than the federal “action level,” mandates annual testing, publishes all testing and remediation data online and places bar codes with access to filter maintenance data on all school foundations so that parents, kids and staff can check. But this was the only B+ given.

The barriers to sound public policy at the state level can be captured via two themes: the failure of public officials to act, and the financial pressures facing local school systems.

The gut reaction of public officials

We know what happened in Flint where both local and state officials denied, obstructed, and diverted the issue. A similar pattern emerged in Newark, with the school district knowing about a lead problem for six years before they turned off the water fountains and supplied bottled water to staff and students. Then it took until 2018 for public officials to admit that there was a problem—that school water was unsafe to drink without filters, that the problem was more widespread than previously shared, and that it could easily take eight years to replace the poisonous pipes.

“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.”

The persistent underfunding of our public schools

It’s a game of passing the buck. Schools want districts to pay; districts want the state to pay; the states, in turn, want someone else to pay. The responsibility to pay for testing now overwhelmingly falls on cash-strapped school districts. Lawmakers in California, trying to get statewide mandatory school lead testing, were strongly opposed by some school districts. And in that state, only 11 percent of the 13,000 K–12 schools signed up for free testing after it became available in early 2019. The Maryland Association of Board of Education opposed that state’s lead testing bill since the costs would be too burdensome on the districts. Testing costs are significant; the Texas Education Agency estimates that annual water testing would cost $22 million annually—$2,500 per school—and remediation costs could be far more substantial and time-consuming. Particularly hard hit would be smaller school districts with tight budgets.

In some communities, the nonprofit/philanthropic sector is trying to take up the slack. Timed with “back to school,” Environment NC recently released a new free toolkit for parents, teachers, and administrators to get data, articulate solutions, take action, and galvanize support about lead in the water school kids drink. The Get the Lead Out toolkit includes key questions to ask the school administration/school board, videos to share on social media, and sample petitions to decision-makers, along with tips to understand test results and their limitations. Suggested solutions to the school lead crisis range from the short term—installing filters now—to the long term, replacing pipes and fixtures and removing lead service lines.

In Detroit, when the new superintendent of schools got the report about alarming levels of lead in two-thirds of his schools, he turned to local philanthropy, which raised $2.4 million to purchase and install highly filtered water hydration stations for every school.

But this crisis, exposing the next generation to hazardous levels of levels through the water they drink at school, must be solved by the government, which is responsible for public health, public education, and public infrastructure. Denial is fruitless, delay can be lethal, and inadequate policies and programs are shortsighted. And, as with many environmental hazards, those with the least power and financial means suffer the most.

Mustafa Ali, a founder of the EPA’s environmental justice program, says that 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.”—Debby Warren