Federal, state officials act to get lead out of school water

by Robin Kemp

How safe is your child’s drinking water at school? Georgia schools earned an “F” when it comes to clean drinking water for its students and teachers. The good news: Help is on the way.

On Thursday, the Senate voted 89-2 to pass S.914, the “Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act,” a $35 billion proposal that included a push from Sen. Jon Ossoff for $200 million “to repair lead pipes in schools and $100 million for general remediation of lead pipes in communities across Georgia and the country.”

The bill goes to the House, where similar legislation is pending.

Lead gets into drinking water from old pipes and lead-solder connections. The water may come to the schools without any detectable lead in it. When it hits the old pipes, the lead leaches out into the water and is carried to the drinking fountains, cafeteria kitchen sink, restrooms, and outside faucets.

On December 10, 2020, the Georgia State Board of Education voted to authorize State School Superintendent Richard Woods “to enter into a contract with a vendor to be named at a cost not to exceed an amount to be disclosed in Federal Funds” to test for lead in about 800 Georgia schools. Research Triangle Institute, a nonprofit, got the contract, but the $980,000 in federal grant money only paid for testing, not repairs. Schools would have had to pay to fix the problem. Thursday’s vote means schools will be able to get funding for lead pipe issues the testing might find.

Clayton County Public Schools won’t be looking for any of that funding, however. In a statement late Thursday, CCPS said, “In 2019, Clayton County Public Schools conducted a series of lead tests in our schools, which resulted in minimal to no issues with lead in our plumbing infrastructure. This resulted in very minimal (fractional) remediation costs. Due to this, it was determined that our overall infrastructure was in satisfactory condition and we will not pursue any additional funding based on our study.”

Ossoff said of the amendment, “I’m grateful my colleagues on both sides of the aisle came together to pass this bill to ensure clean water in our public schools. All of our children deserve clean, healthy drinking water, and I’m proud to deliver this crucial funding. I have ensured this water bill provides funding for the removal of lead pipes in our public schools. This is a huge win for Georgia. All children deserve clean, healthy water. I thank my colleagues in both parties for supporting this provision and I thank committee Chairman Tom Carper for his hard work on this vital water bill.”

The magic word in the bill is “remediation,” as in “ii. by inserting ‘or the remediation of’ after ‘testing for'”:

Read the text of the amendments to the bill in the Congressional Record

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Lead poisoning is especially dangerous for children, infants and pregnant women. It can:

  • damage their nervous systems
  • cause hearing loss
  • cause kidney damage
  • limit their IQ (a measure of how easily someone learns)
  • affect their speech, language, and behavior
  • cause attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities

In 2016, testing at Atlanta and Dekalb County Schools found lead in the water that students and teachers drink. The Public Interest Research Group, which did the national study of lead contamination in school drinking water, did not include Clayton County schools. PIRG made six recommendations in the wake of the Flint, MI lead contamination crisis coming to light:

  • Get the lead out. (Remove lead pipes from all schools nationwide.)
  • Meanwhile, install and maintain NSF certified filters. (“Every outlet used for drinking or cooking should be fit-ted with filters certified by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) to remove lead from water.”)
  • Proactively prevent lead contamination. (“schools should be removing lead-bearing parts and installing filters certified to remove lead proactively. This preventative approach is critical because tests — even when properly done — can fail to capture lead exposure.”
  • Require action at 1 part per billion. (“…the American Academy of Pediatrics is calling on officials ‘to ensure that water fountains in schools do not exceed water lead concentrations of 1 ppb.'”
  • Proper testing. (“Schools and early childhood programs should test at all water outlets used for drinking and cooking annually, and use protocols designed to capture worst-case lead exposure for children.”)
  • Provide full disclosure and accountability. (“Parents have a right to know whether their children’s water at school is safe.”)

To ensure that transparency, PIRG recommends the following best practices for schools to keep parents informed about lead levels:

  • Schools and early childhood programs should tell people about what parts of the school plumbing system contain lead, test results, plans to fix the problem, and progress reports.
  • That information should be available both at the school and online–including at the statewide level–in language the community understands.

In Washington, DC, according to PIRG’s report, “citizen activists have urged local officials to require a bar code on each tap at school, so that parents can verify that filters are being maintained properly wherever their child fills her water bottle.” However, the group

Under Georgia rules, “The lead action level is exceeded if the concentration of lead in more than 10 percent of tap water samples collected during any monitoring period conducted in accordance with Section 391-3-5-.25(7) is greater than 0.015 mg/L.”

The same thing can happen if you live in a house, apartment, or mobile home that is connected to old plumbing. The Environmental Working Group says you can filter out lead and many other dangerous contaminants by using a water filtration pitcher or a reverse osmosis (“whole house”) water system.

A reverse osmosis system is basically a strainer on a microscopic level. Water flows through a “semipermeable membrane.” The holes in the membrane let water pass through but catch nearly all the tiny particles and molecules that contaminate your water. It costs about $200 to get a reverse osmosis system to put under your kitchen sink, with some systems priced from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

A more affordable option is a water filtration pitcher, which runs about $15-30. Depending on how often you use it, you’ll need to buy clean filters every now and then, maybe every month or two. Filter prices depend on how many filters are in the box and how many contaminants they can remove. Be sure to check the label on the water filter package to see what chemicals and heavy metals the filter can remove and how often you will need to replace the filter.

See what levels of other contaminants are allowed in Georgia drinking water under state rules.

See what the Environmental Working Group found in the water in your zip code.

See what contaminants the Clayton County Water Authority tests for before it sends water to your faucet.