The crisis in Flint, Michigan has shined a spotlight on the public health hazards of lead in drinking water. Pressure has been placed on schools, institutions at high risk for lead, and where millions of children are vulnerable to its effects each day.
This guide will assist school and town stakeholders from the moment lead is discovered through the process of planning for long term success. In order to help you make the best decision for your school, we’ve considered effectiveness, cost, and labor.
How to interpret lead levels
Physicians, public health officials, and the EPA all agree that no amount of lead exposure is safe. Lead is dangerous for children even in low levels and can permanently harm their developing brains and nervous systems. It is persistent and bioaccumulates, so early exposure is important to avoid.
Despite this consensus, the World Health Organization and European Union have both established a legal level of lead in water of 10 ppb. The EPA’s standard is even higher. The agency recommends action at any individual water outlet when the lead level is above 20 ppb. For public water systems as a whole, its action level is 15 ppb. Many schools that discover lead contamination use the EPA standard of 15 ppb.
The data is clear. Even exposure below 10 ppb is dangerous for children. We agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics: lead levels at each fountain and faucet must reach a standard of ≤1 ppb to be safe.
Immediate response to finding lead
Regardless of the long-term remediation method you choose, there are steps to take as soon as you discover high lead levels.
- Remove access to contaminated water and post signage. Shut off water supply or physically disconnect unsafe fountains/sinks until lead levels are safe. Signage at each fixture will provide clarification and education about the issue.
- Contact your local water system and state departments of health and water. Local and state government will need to update their records and ensure that water treatment is appropriate. You can also contact the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 to report information and ask questions.
- Provide notice to parents and school community. Being transparent about lead levels and school response plans gives credibility to schools and opens the door for beneficial community involvement towards a solution. Schools can use any method they believe will be effective at reaching their audience. Many schools post on their websites, send or email a letter to parents, or publish a letter in their local newspaper. For greatest transparency, posting online is recommended.
- If necessary, provide water from an alternate source. If main sources of drinking water are impacted, schools may need to rely on bottled water dispensers until the problem is resolved.
“ Lead is dangerous for children even in low levels and can permanently harm their developing brains and nervous systems.”
Remediation: The Options
Once the immediate risk is gone, it’s time to look into more permanent solutions. These solutions vary in 1) efficacy, 2) cost, and 3) required labor. The right method may differ between school districts, or even between schools, depending on available resources.
Option 1: Finding and removing lead at the source
How it works:
Schools or contractors search for sources of lead, remove or bypass them, and conduct follow-up testing until tests show that lead concentrations have dropped to target levels (safest levels are ≤1 ppb). Schools should also clean fixture aerators and re-route any ground wires near pipes that may accelerate corrosion in areas at risk for lead.
Likely places with lead include interior pipes, service lines, solder, fixture hardware, aerators, and water meters. Importantly, there may be areas of plumbing that are at risk of leaching lead into water as they age even if they are not currently posing a problem. It is important to check all of these potential sources of lead.
Creating a plumbing profile of your school will help you identify and keep track of high-risk areas for lead, make decisions about water supply and pipe materials, prioritize sample sites to effectively systematize testing, strategize for remediation, and inform parents and school staff about steps the school is taking.
A plumber can assess interior plumbing, while the local water supplier will have information about a building’s service lines. Make sure that a plumber uses only lead-free solders and other materials in replacements, as is required by law.
How it stacks up:
Efficacy: This method can be up to 100% effective and permanent if done thoroughly. In practice, however, it may fall short of achieving safe lead levels. For example, after Newton, MA’s remediation efforts in 2016 many school fixtures still tested at up to 10 ppb.
Cost: Costs are generally very high. They will vary depending on the extent of existing lead contamination and potential future sources of lead contamination that should be removed. If the source of lead is difficult to find, testing costs could also quickly add up at $20-$80 per sample. For Cleveland Public Schools in 2016, testing alone throughout 69 buildings cost over $390,000.
For example, simply replacing drinking fountains (at $500-$1500 each plus installation costs) will be much less expensive than excavating to replace a building service line which, in addition to costing thousands of dollars, could run into unexpected costs such as any building structural components blocking access.
Labor: This will also generally be costly, with some variation. However, testing, construction, and installations can be accomplished by an independent contractor and are not necessarily reliant on school personnel.
Option 2: Filtration
How it works:
Certified point-of use filter systems can remove up to 99.5% of lead from drinking water without the need for time-consuming efforts to find and remove lead from infrastructure.
The filters need to be periodically replaced, usually about once per year. For the most trafficked stations, replacements will be, at most, twice per year.
In 2016, Washington, D.C. tested water throughout its public schools and found lead contamination above 15 ppb in 64 buildings. The District government installed filters at every water source in those schools. After seeing how effective filtration is, the government changed its lead standard to 1 ppb and has since installed filters at every water source in every school in the District.
If you decide filtration is an appropriate solution for your school, take a look at our list of the 5 Most Popular Bottle Filling Stations for Schools to find the filler that best fits your needs.
How it stacks up:
Efficacy: Filtration can be both effective and quickly implemented. The filters that BeCause Water provides are NSF/ANSI 42/53 certified. They will remove 99.5% of lead in the conditions listed by the manufacturer, Elkay. This enables them to bring water with up to 200 ppb lead to safe standards. They also remove three other common contaminants from water: copper, chlorine, and particulates.
According to Elkay, filters hold a 3000 gallon capacity, or about 24,000 16-ounce “bottle fills”. This capacity can extend upwards of 1 year of completely safe water for most bottle fillers.
Cost: Filtration systems can retrofit into existing fountain locations for less than $500 per station plus installation costs. New systems may cost approximately $800-$1000 plus installation. Each system will come with one replacement filter, and additional filters cost approximately $90 each. The cost of replacements should therefore cost less than $180 per year. In total, this solution is significantly cheaper than pipe replacement.
Labor: Labor is required for installation and then briefly for periodic filter replacement. Most bottle fillers have an easily accessible compartment that houses the filter where the existing filter can be removed and the replacement popped in.
Option 3: Flushing
How it works:
School staff manually flush each source of drinking water for 1-2 minutes at the start of each day. While using time-operated solenoid valves is another option, these are not recommended due to liability, installation, and maintenance costs.
To work best, this measure should be combined with regular testing, cleaning debris from accessible screens and aerators, and training staff to use only cold water for cooking and drinking.
Many schools (including dozens on this list from Massachusetts) report that they flush their taps to reduce lead, but do not report any other actions. This puts students’ and staff’s health and safety at great risk.
How it stacks up:
Efficacy: This method has limited efficacy and should only be used if the first two are infeasible. It should not be trusted if lead levels are well above safe levels or for drinking water sources that provide hot water. This method also faces the risk of human error, since it is dependent on daily attention.
Cost: In direct short-term costs, flushing is cheaper than the first two options. Over the long term, however, labor and water wastage costs will become higher.
Labor: Labor for this method is intensive compared to the first two options. It will be approximately equal to [1 minute per tap x # taps x salary of person flushing].
Other EPA-recommended actions
For any non-drinking water sources that are not safe or are not tested for lead due to budget constraints, the EPA accepts cautionary signage as an appropriate response. The signage should communicate that the water is not safe for drinking and should be combined with educational outreach about the issue.
In the Long-Term
After choosing and implementing a remediation strategy for lead in water, schools should set up systems for long-term safety.
- Make sure that testing and record-keeping systems are in order. A school plumbing profile can help keep track of high-risk sites for lead and organize testing and record-keeping protocols. Accurate fixture ID’s and exact protocols for testing best practices are also useful for communicating within the school district and with outside contractors. Testing consistency is important for accurate results.
- Have a plan for future testing. Make sure that the staff responsible for working with contractors, testing laboratories, records, maintaining signage, or educating students are well-informed and familiar with both safe and legal guidelines. It is important to check both federal and state laws.
- Communicate the problem to staff, families, and the surrounding community. When it comes to the serious nature of lead poisoning, transparency is imperative to generating viable solutions and creating an awareness of the problem. Newsletters, informational meetings, and letters to local media are all good ways to get the word out and ensure everyone is in the loop.
- Educate staff and students. Even for those not directly involved with implementation or maintenance of lead responses, it is useful to be informed and aware of the problems that lead can pose. Impacted, schools may need to rely on bottled water dispensers until the problem is resolved.
Finding lead in drinking water can be a concerning and confusing moment, but these best practices can act as a starting point to ensuring schools provide healthy environments for all students and staff.
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