Getting the Lead Out of School Drinking Water:

All children deserve a chance to reach their full potential.  Families send their children to school in hopes that they learn and are provided the opportunity to fulfill their dreams.   Families and communities are appalled that children are being poisoned by lead in drinking water, which can cause irreversible behavior and cognitive damage.  Sadly, many communities find out after the fact that their children have consumed high levels of lead in school drinking water for an unknown amount of time. 


School districts in Portland, OR; Newark, NJ; Chicago, IL; Boston, MA; Baltimore, MD; Washington, DC; and of course Flint, MI have battled with lead in drinking water.  After contaminated water in Flint, MI became national news, parents and teachers in some parts of the country pushed for lead testing at their own schools. The results have often turned up reminders that lead problems persist decades after they first surface.  Partly to blame is the regulatory vacuum that leaves about 90 percent of the nation’s schools with no mandatory requirements for testing and limited guidance on how to properly remediate the problem when they do find lead in the water. Only schools that have their own water source, rather than receiving water from a municipal system, must sample regularly for lead and meet certain standards.

Potential lead sources in school drinking water.

FACT advocates that schools should create a water-testing plan and inform communities of the plan and results.  Water standing in contact with a building's plumbing will be the first water out of the tap and water fountains in the morning; therefore, lead concentrations in drinking water usually are the highest in the first water out of the system.  This is particularly dangerous for children who take the first drinks of water out of the water fountains, especially after the weekends.  Soluble lead concentrations will decrease as the water is run but particulate levels of lead may not. If lead pipes, leaded solder, or brass fixtures are present, even relatively noncorrosive water can dissolve dangerous amounts of lead if the water sits in contact with these materials for an hour or more. Similarly, heat will accelerate the lead corrosion process, so hot water will typically yield higher lead concentrations than cold-water samples taken from the same tap.

Lead most frequently gets into drinking water by leaching from plumbing materials and fixtures as water moves through a school’s distribution system.  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.  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. Testing facilitates an evaluation of the plumbing and helps target remediation. It is a key step in understanding the problem, if there is one, and designing an appropriate response.

How to Read the Tests:

Once testing occurs and results are received, the next issue is determining what lead levels are acceptable.  The EPA’s guidance recommends that schools take action at water fixtures where the lead concentration exceeds 20 parts per billion (ppb) or 2 ug/dL (micrograms per deciliter). This concentration differs from the 15 ppb action level that public water systems are required to follow.  The 20 ppb action level is based on a smaller sample collection volume of 250 milliliters (ml) and is designed to pinpoint specific fountains and outlets that require attention.  The 15 ppb action level required for compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) calls for a tap sample volume of 1000 ml (1 liter), and is designed to identify system-wide problems. If a one-liter sample was collected from a drinking water fountain in schools, the initial high concentrations might be diluted by the later part of the sample, which could show lower concentrations. The 20 ppb school level is not inconsistent and likely is more stringent because it reflects a more concentrated sample; 20 ppb in a 250 ml sample would correspond to about 12 ppb in a one-liter sample. 

However, the EPA action level is used as an administrative tool to evaluate community-level exposure; it is not a health-based standard. The maximum contaminant level goal, the value the EPA deems acceptable for health, is 0.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that state and local governments should take steps to ensure that water fountains in schools do not exceed water lead concentrations of 1 ppb (0.1 ug/dL).  FACT advocates for lead not to exceed 1 ppb in school water recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and for schools to take action on levels above 1 ppb.  Many communities, including Washington, DC, adopted the EPA’s action level for water fixtures with greater than 20 ppb, but as described above this number is not a health-based standard and this exposure level is shown to have negative effects on young children.

Taking Action:

The vast majority of public water suppliers do not include schools in their sampling plans because regulations (specifically the Lead and Copper Rule) require sampling of single family dwellings. States and local jurisdictions may, however, establish their own programs for testing drinking water lead levels in schools.

·      In Washington DC, which experienced a devastating lead crisis barely a decade ago, millions of dollars are being spent to install water filters and more rigorously test the city’s public schools and recreation centers after a handful were found to have unacceptable lead levels.

·      In Baltimore, the city’s history of lead problems in public schools has resulted in the system renovating half a dozen schools and installing new filtration systems in each one. But about 80,000 students in Baltimore remain on bottled water. It costs close to a half-million dollars a year, and the stream of paper cups and plastic bottles creates much more waste than traditional fountains.


Center for Disease Control-Lead-Policy Resources

Prevention of Childhood Lead Toxicity, American Academy of Pediatrics-Council on Environmental Health, Bruce Perrin Lanphear, MD, MPH, FAAP, Pediattrics, July 2016, Volume 138/Issue 1 

Lead Poisoning and Health, Fact Sheet, World Health Organization 


National Center for Healthy Housing--Issue Brief: Childhood Lead Exposure and Educational Outcomes, National Center for Healthy Housing


National Sanitation Foundation: Certified Product Listings for Lead Reduction  

Drinking Water Research Foundation: Lead and Drinking Water for Children 

Environmental Protection Agency: Testing Schools and Child Care Centers for Lead in the Drinking Water 

Schools Around the Country Find Lead in Water with No Easy Answer, by Brady Dennis,  July 4, 2016, The Washington Post