When it comes to lead and school drinking water, what we don't know can hurt us, and in this case, hurt our kids. Lead is highly toxic to children, and even small exposures to this neurotoxin can have life-altering effects on children's overall development. Out of concern for children's health, the California State Water Board recently launched a new initiative requiring local water districts to provide free lead tests to schools that request them.

This program has the potential to be an effective tool for understanding whether drinking water at schools is contaminated with lead and how pervasive that contamination is. Unfortunately, however, the State Water Board's testing guidelines have several flaws, thereby limiting the overall effectiveness of the testing program.

In order to protect children's health, lead water testing must be done properly and designed to catch the worst cases of lead-contaminated water. The State Water Board's testing protocols do not meet that bar. To see why, one must first understand that the longer water sits in lead-laced pipes and fixtures, the more likely corrosion and contamination will occur.

Yet the State Water Board’s guidelines block sampling from water outlets where water has been standing for longer than six hours. The protocols specify that no sampling should occur on Monday mornings, or after vacations or holidays. These very instances are some of the most likely circumstances for lead-contaminated water to occur (because that water has been standing for longer periods of time).

Furthermore, the Water Board's testing protocols recommend that schools only sample the five most often used water outlets. Again, this approach is likely to miss the most hazardous cases of lead-contaminated drinking water at a school site. That's a problem when school officials are using these tests to determine whether it is safe for kids to drink from the school's water fountains during recess and lunch.

Another problem with the testing protocols is the recommendation to do "confirmation sampling," or in other words, to re-test a water tap that tests positive for elevated lead levels to confirm that there is lead contamination. This is a problem because of the variability inherent in lead water testing. Lead particles do not break off of pipes at a constant rate over time. Rather, lead leaching is a highly variable process. Consequently, multiple water tests from one outlet can show a wide variation of lead levels between samples.[1]That means that re-testing a water tap to "confirm" there is a lead contamination problem can give school officials a false negative and mask a significant risk of lead exposure. Rather than re-testing to try to prove there isn't a problem and to justify doing nothing, schools should be taking a more precautionary approach, one that seeks to prevent lead exposures before they occur. 

When it comes to lead and children's health, the goal shouldn't simply be to ensure that most children are protected most of the time. Rather, the goal should be to ensure that all kids are protected all the time. To do that, schools need to know about the worst cases of lead contaminated water and what the true risks are for lead exposure at the most frequently used water fountains. The State Water Board's testing protocols should be designed to give schools that information.

Testing drinking water at school is a critical tool, both for identifying lead-contaminated water and pinpointing the specific causes of contamination, whether it's a lead service line or a brass fitting on a drinking fountain. More schools need to test their drinking water, do it properly, and take action to protect kids from lead threats. The State Water Board should revise its testing protocols to better help schools meet these objectives and keep kids safe.


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