We can solve the widespread problem of lead in school water – BDN

Michael Haedicke is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine and a faculty fellow at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the University of Maine or the Mitchell Center. Haedicke is a member of the Maine chapter of the National Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Last September, Maine released the results of statewide tests of school drinking water for contamination with lead.

The findings, which are publicly available from the Maine Center for Disease Control, were concerning. Over a quarter of the samples showed elevated lead levels, some extremely so.

For many parents, including me, the problem hits home. At Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Bangor, which my child will attend this year, one faucet measured in at a whopping 167 parts per billion (ppb).

Because contaminated water is one of the ways that people can be exposed to lead, the Maine CDC recommends avoiding drinking water sources with lead concentrations of over 4 ppb.

Lead exposure is especially dangerous for children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that any amount of lead in children’s bloodstream is unsafe.

Unfortunately, lead is a hidden contaminant — lead-tainted water looks, smells, and tastes just like clean water. This is why the law that required schools statewide to test drinking water sources was so important.

We now know which school water sources are unsafe. The question is, what should we do about this problem?

Schools have been asked to prohibit access to contaminated faucets and drinking fountains. This is prudent, but it is not a long-term solution. It is also difficult to implement if most or all of the water sources in a school have elevated lead levels.

To solve the problem, we need to stop lead exposure at its source. Lead enters the drinking water supply in two main ways.

First, in communities with centralized water utilities, treated drinking water flows through underground service lines on its way to homes and schools. In communities with older infrastructure, like many in Maine, there is a good chance that these service lines are made of lead.

Lead service lines corrode under certain conditions and release lead into the water they carry. This is what happened in the Flint, Michigan, case of lead contamination, which made national news in 2016. It has also occurred in other locations, such as Newark, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

Progress is being made in replacing lead service lines with safer materials. For example, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, passed by Congress in 2021, earmarks $15 billion for states to identify and replace lead lines.

The EPA has proposed that states and water utilities finish replacing lead service lines within 10 years. This is an ambitious timeline and accomplishing this goal will require additional resources. But it is a measure that the public should support.

Second, lead contamination can also be caused by solder and piping that contain lead within homes and buildings. These indoor plumbing components can cause lead contamination even if in-the-ground service lines are safe.

So far, federal policymakers and regulators have not addressed the problem of lead contamination from indoor plumbing. This is an area where states should act. Policymakers in Maine can look to the state of Michigan for inspiration.

Last October, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed bipartisan “Filter First” legislation. The new laws require schools and daycare centers to install lead-removing filters on faucets and drinking fountains, whether or not they have been documented as contaminated. These filters are effective and enable schools and daycare centers to avoid higher costs associated with replacing indoor plumbing systems.

Ending children’s exposure to lead in drinking water will take work and investment. But no child should risk lead exposure from a school water fountain. We understand the problem, we know how to solve it, and the time to act is now.