When you think about lead in schools, the image that may pop into your head is of a pencil. But pencils don’t actually contain any lead; they use a nontoxic substance called graphite. Lead is a toxic metal that was utilized in plumbing components, paint, ammunition manufacturing, fishing tackle, and gasoline. Even though products containing lead have been phasing out of the market for years, there may still be lead based paint or lead plumbing components in our schools.
Although lead is toxic to animals and people, its unique properties mean it has been used throughout history, even as far back as 6,500 B.C. As a soft metal that can easily be cut and shaped, it was perfect for moveable type in printing presses, and because it does not conduct electricity well and is resistant to corrosion, it has been widely used in plumbing.
Exposure to lead can be dangerous to anyone, especially prolonged over time. For adults, it can lead to impaired hand-eye coordination, kidney disease, and sterility. The risk is greater for young children whose brains are still developing, and unborn children who receive nutrients from their mothers. Lead exposure can cause slowed learning and development in children. If anyone is concerned about lead poisoning, you can visit a doctor’s office and have a blood test performed.
As people began to recognize just how toxic it was, the use of lead was phased out and regulations were put in place to protect the public. In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed by Congress to set national standards for drinking water to protect against contaminants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the safe drinking water standards and state agencies monitor every public water system. For us, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the state agency responsible for enforcing the EPA regulations on water quality.
Schools with their own water supply, from a well for example, can be considered Non-Transient Non-Community Water Systems because they serve the same group of people for more than six months out of the year, but not year-round. These schools are subject to regulation requirements and will need a license to sample water for lead.
In 1988, the Safe Drinking Water Act was amended to include the Lead Contamination Control Act to identify and reduce the lead specifically in drinking water at schools and childcare facilities.
This act requires:
- A recall of drinking water coolers with lead‐lined tanks
- Prohibition of the sale and manufacturing of any drinking water cooler that was not “lead‐free”
- Development of guidance to educational agencies and schools including child care facilities on sampling and testing protocols
- Public notification of the availability of lead testing results
Lead in schools
The EPA has developed a system for helping schools reduce the amount of lead in their drinking water that revolves around three Ts: training, testing and telling.
School administrators and anyone sampling school drinking water should be trained on the following topics:
- Health effects of lead, especially risks to children and pregnant women
- Potential sources of lead in drinking water and factors that contribute to corrosion
- How to test for lead using EPA recommendations and accredited laboratories
Testing means taking samples of drinking water periodically to determine if it is contaminated by lead. Most districts that get water from a public utility can sample water without a license. However, if a district has a well or other source, it may be considered a Non-Transient Non-Community Water System and require licensing to sample.
Sampling should occur during warmer months when the building is occupied because lead is more readily dissolved in water at warmer temperatures. Prior to sampling, consult your water supplier and find an accredited laboratory to do the testing. No water outlets (faucets or fixtures) in the building that will be sampled should be used from six to 18 hours prior to sampling. Sampling should not be conducted after weekends, after water in the building has been used, or during periods of inactivity (summer, winter, and spring break). When sampling, be sure to label which locations on a map were sampled as well as the bottles containing the samples from the particular location.
Any water outlet that has the potential to be consumed should be sampled, including:
- Lounge Sinks
- Drinking fountains
- Kitchen sinks
- Ice Machines
- Sinks with drinking fountains
- Special education classrooms
- Restroom faucets in facilities with young children
Communicating about lead
Lead in drinking water is a public health hazard that people need to know about, especially when it comes to children in our schools. It’s important to keep this in mind if you are concerned that you may have contaminated water.
When communicating about a potential or real lead hazard, keep the following tips in mind:
- Provide honest, comprehensive, and accurate information before being asked
- Work with your organization’s public information office to designate one spokesperson
- Have materials available in languages other than English
- Keep internal and external stakeholders updated
- Be prepared to provide background information and detailed explanation of technical terminology, procedures, and processes
Common sources that cause lead exposure include paint, car exhaust, storage batteries, pottery and more, but water accounts for 10-20 percent of exposure.
This information is based on a Fund webinar led by Risk Solutions Consultant Joanie Arrott and Facility Specialist James Reese. TASB Facility Services’ Environmental Services can help with drinking water sampling for lead contamination, and Fund members can also contact their Risk Solutions Consultant for more information.