Drinking at a water fountain. U.S. EPA

Washington – The drinking fountains at Burr District Elementary School have been off limits to the school’s 250 students since a test in 2001 found the water they spouted had a level of lead that required the school, under federal law, to take remedial action.

The  pre-K to 4th grade students at the school have been drinking from water coolers instead, said regional Superintendent Howard Thiery.

Burr District Elementary School, located in the Higganum section of Haddam, has its own water supply, a well that federal law requires be tested regularly for lead contamination. In 2001, the school’s water lead level was 43 parts per billion, more than twice the 20 ppb the Environmental Protection Agency says is a trigger for follow-up testing and remedial action.

Despite that threshold, an EPA spokesperson said, “There is no safe level of lead exposure.”

The school’s water was tested every year after that, and lead levels varied.  According to the EPA, the lead levels in the school’s water reached a high of 270 parts per billion in 2004. Last year, lead contamination of the water was 68 ppb.

“Even when we reached compliance levels for periods of time, we remained on bottled water, and we will do so until we are sure the steps we have taken will produce a long-term compliance,” Thiery said.

Burr District Elementary School knows it has a water problem. But most of Connecticut’s more than 1,000 schools and day care centers don’t have to test their water, under federal or state laws.

That, says Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is “a yawning gap in our lead-testing protocols.”

Prompted by the tragedy in Flint, Mich., where thousands of children drank toxic water in their homes and schools, and the discovery of high lead levels in the water of schools in Ithaca, N.Y., Schumer introduced a bill that would provide $100 million in grants to help day care centers and schools test drinking water for lead.

Other lawmakers are seeking to expand the Safe Drinking Water Act to require all schools to regularly test their water. Currently, only public water systems are required to comply with this law.

The Flint tragedy has prompted other lawmakers to declare war on lead poisoning from other sources too.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., for example, has introduced a bill that would establish a new tax credit to “incentivize homeowners” to rid their residences of lead paint and lead pipes.

“Lead exposure is of particular concern for children under 6, because their growing bodies absorb a larger portion of the lead to which they’re exposed, and because their developing brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to lead,” he said.

Lead poisoning in children can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system, leading to reduced IQ, behavioral problems and learning disabilities.

Burr District Elementary School’s well water is acidic, leaching lead out of the soldering in the facility’s water pipes, Thiery said. The school is treating its well water to make it less acidic. But Thiery says the water problem at his school occurs widely.

“Any building of a certain age has lead problems,” he said.

The Burr District Elementary School is about 60 years old. Lead in plumbing for drinking water wasn’t outlawed until 1986 by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

So schools newer than Burr can have lead problems too – and the source of a school’s water makes little difference.

That’s because virtually all lead contamination occurs inside schools — in plumbing that includes lead, water-cooler coils and linings, and in leaded-metal fountains and taps.

A voluntary system

There’s also a special characteristic of water usage in schools that makes it more likely to be contaminated than water in a home. That’s because schools close for long periods of time, leaving water sitting in the pipes.

Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech, said lead is the most prevalent toxicant in U.S. school drinking water.

“Yet for the vast majority of schools, federal regulations for testing taps and remediating contamination is voluntary,” he said.

Edwards, who helped bring to light the lead poisoning in Flint,  said parents and teachers should press school systems to test their water.

“Even though we do not yet have a federal law that requires it, everyone should make sure the water is tested in our voluntary system,” he said.

The EPA also promotes testing by state and school officials.

“Even though the drinking water you receive from your water supplier meets federal and state standards for lead, your facility may have elevated lead levels due to plumbing materials and water-use patterns,” the EPA says in 3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water at Schools.

“Because lead concentrations can change as water moves through the distribution system, the best way to know if a school might have elevated levels of lead in its drinking water is by testing the water in that school,” the EPA concluded.

The Connecticut Department of Public Health said state law requires all water suppliers to test for lead every two years. But like most other states, Connecticut does not require schools, other than those with their own source of water, to test their water.

Lori Mathieu, a DPH official who is in charge of drinking water issues, said her department “has an awful lot of work to do” monitoring the state’s water companies.

Water those companies supply to most Connecticut schools is tested every day for bacteria and other toxins and is safe to drink, Mathieu said.

Yet, she said, she would not be surprised if in the future the state or federal government implements laws requiring the testing of school water, “and we’ll be ready to implement those changes.”

“There is a lot going on with Flint, Michigan, and a lot of interest in drinking water – and lead in particular,” Mathieu said.

Only a fraction of the state’s more than 1,000 schools and day care centers have their own water supply, like the Burr District school, and are required by law to test drinking water for lead. Below is a list of test results

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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