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Childhood lead exposure through school drinking water

Lead is a toxic heavy metal most commonly used in batteries and construction materials. Although historically, lead was also used in paint, plumbing materials, the solder used to fuse plumbing pipes together, and gasoline. Due to the highly poisonous nature of lead, these former uses have been widely banned and replaced with lead-safe work practices. However, lead pipes remain in use across all 50 of the United States.

Lead pipes are used to carry water to many different water systems, school water systems included. School water systems then deliver water through faucets and fountains, which our children use for drinking water. Lead pipes are known to corrode and contaminate the water that travels through them. 

A Public Health Crisis

Lead pipes, a leading source of lead exposure, are still incredibly common, especially in older buildings. According to the EPA, service lines in older cities and buildings built prior to 1986 are more likely to have lead piping, often as part of the internal plumbing. Among properties without lead service lines, a common problem is brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and plumbing with lead solder.

"Currently, there is no uniformity in states’ approaches to create and oversee programs to test for elevated lead in school drinking water. When collected, data on lead in school drinking water are not collected in a uniform manner across states, nor are they regularly made available to guide action to reduce potential exposure to lead. In those states that have tested for lead in drinking water and had data available, nearly half of the schools (44%) have identified one or more water sources with elevated levels of lead and more would do so if lower action levels were used to test all drinking water sources in schools."¹

While the number is high, not all facilities are contaminated with lead. As the EPA goes on to explain, '“Approximately 8,000 schools and child care facilities maintain their own water supply and are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). There are approximately 98,000 public schools and 500,000 child care facilities not regulated under the SDWA."² Meaning it is up to these unregulated schools and facilities to test their water supply. This leaves many schools vulnerable to contamination with no regulation or requirement to test or disclose any information to parents or the community.

Credit: Environment America Research & Policy Center (2019). 

Risks of Lead Exposure

There is no safe level of lead exposure in children. Any amount of lead is harmful to human health even at low exposure levels and accumulates in the body over time. Infants, young children, and fetuses are all at an increased risk of experiencing behavioral problems as well physical side effects at much lower lead exposure levels than adults. As exposure increases, the child's blood lead level increases, causing further effects on the child's health.

Additionally, some older facilities may still have lead paint. Peeling paint creates paint chips and lead dust, which can be indistinguishable from dust on a windowsill. These chips and particles can end up on the child’s hands, then on their food, and then in their bodies.

If you suspect that your child has elevated blood lead levels, contact your pediatric healthcare provider immediately for a blood lead test. Based on the lead test results, providers can offer treatment advice. The CDC recommends, “feeding the child a diet high in iron and calcium, connecting the child to early educational services, and scheduling follow-up blood testing.”

Health Effects of Blood Lead Levels (BLL)

"Once lead enters the body, it is distributed to organs such as the brain, kidneys, liver and bones."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), defines Blood Lead Level (BLL) as the amount of lead in blood, and measures micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (μg/dL). Under current guidelines, 3.5 micrograms of lead per deciliter in your child’s blood sample constitute an above-average BLL.

The CDC reports that “more than half a million children ages 1-5 in the U.S. have blood lead levels high enough to damage their health”. This is a public health crisis in the United States.

Health effects of an elevated BLL include cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure, kidney and reproductive problems, learning disabilities, developmental delay, and nervous system damage in children.

How to limit your child's lead exposure

Since there is no standard for regulating most schools’ water supply or mandated pipe replacements at this time, there is a high probability that the drinking water at your kids' schools and childcare facilities is contaminated with lead. Irreversible damage and the possibility of lead poisoning or disease from lead exposure are serious threats.

You can contact your school and ask if the facility’s water is delivered via lead pipes and if the water has been tested for lead. In order to try and avoid drinking lead-contaminated water, it is suggested that you filter out lead and other heavy metals.

The simplest way you can ensure your child has the cleanest, safest drinking water possible is by using our Junior Insulated Stainless Steel Filtered Water Bottle. It removes >99.3% of lead as well as many other dangerous contaminants. See the test results here. 

For more information on lead screening and tips to avoid childhood lead poisoning, you can contact your local health department or the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program run by the CDC.

 

Resources:

1.Harvard School of Public Health. Early Adopters: State Approaches to Testing School Drinking Water for Lead in the United States.
https://cdn1.sph.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/84/2019/01/Early-Adopters_State-Approaches-to-Testing-School-Drinking-Water-for-Lead-in-the-United-States_2019.pdf
2. EPA. Lead Drinking Water at Schools and Childcare Facilities. 
https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/lead-drinking-water-schools-and-childcare-facilities
3. WHO. Lead Poisoning and Health. 
https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/lead-poisoning-and-health
4. Environment America. Get Lead Out. 
https://environmentamerica.org/feature/ame/get-lead-out-0
5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Lead Exposure in Children. 
https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/lead-exposure/Pages/Lead-Exposure-in-Children.aspx
6. CDC. Lead in Drinking Water. 
https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/sources/water.htm#:~:text=Lead%20can%20enter%20drinking%20water,acidity%20or%20low%20mineral%20content.
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