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New NASBE Report Details How States Are Handling Lead in School Drinking Water


New research finds most states test for lead in drinking water, but efforts are inconsistent and face challenges.

Alexandria, VA — According to a new report from the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), efforts to test for lead in school drinking water vary across the country. The analysis by NASBE partner Elevate, a Chicago-based environmental nonprofit, found that while most states have programs to help schools test their drinking water, efforts to remove sources of lead are inconsistent and face obstacles.

Authors Caroline Pakenham and Bethany Olson detail testing programs nationwide: whether they are mandatory or voluntary, how they operate, and common challenges. Among the report’s findings:

  • Twenty-three states have a statewide voluntary lead testing program for schools, and 18 states have mandatory testing.
  • Of the states with testing requirements, 13 require mitigation if lead is found in drinking water.
  • Only 15 states offer some level of financial support for mitigating sources of lead in water.
  • Most states with a recommended or required action level use 15 parts per billion or above as the suggested level to trigger action to reduce lead in drinking water.

Much of children’s daily water intake comes from school water fountains. Older school facilities and others without regular testing efforts thus put children at risk of consuming toxic lead. There is no safe level of lead in blood in children. Even at low levels, lead exposure can cause learning challenges and behavior and attention problems.

How States Are Handling Lead in School Drinking Water includes recommendations for how state boards of education can advocate to overcome challenges to effective testing and mitigation. State and district inter­viewees called attention to challenges in four areas: coordination, communication, data collection and management, and implementation. For schools in underserved areas that may have experienced years of disin­vestment in infrastructure, ensuring financial and technical support to conduct lead testing is particularly important.

The authors note states that are leading in lead testing and mitigation. For example, New Hampshire effectively coordinates with key education stakeholders about testing and its importance. Vermont and Washington, DC, have developed data management and tracking systems to make lead test results easier to track for follow up and more accessible to the public. Vermont reimburses most costs associated with schools’ fixture replacements, and New Hampshire and California provide grant funding to assist schools with mitigation costs and improve drinking water quality.

“Schools are central to children’s health and success,” write Pakenham and Olson. “Prioritizing their health and safety, providing appropriate resources and support for testing and mitigation, and ensuring coordination among many people and departments will be critical to effectively, equitably addressing lead in school drinking water.”

“State boards have a powerful role to play in supporting lead testing programs and eliminating the challenges schools face in doing this work,” says NASBE President and CEO Robert Hull. “By leveraging their policy, questioning, and convening authorities, state boards can contribute to the seamless, effective opera­tion of lead testing programs to ensure that all students have access to safe drinking water.”

The work was made possible by The Joyce Foundation.

Read and share How States Are Handling Lead in School Drinking Water, which includes a state-by-state table of the landscape analysis results.

NASBE serves as the only membership organization for state boards of education. A nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, NASBE elevates state board members’ voices in national and state policymaking, facilitates the exchange of informed ideas, and supports members in advancing equity and excellence in public education for students of all races, genders, and circumstances. Learn more at www.nasbe.org.

Elevate is a nonprofit organization that works nationally and is headquartered in Chicago. Elevate designs and implements programs that reduce costs, protect people and the environment, and ensure the benefits of clean and efficient energy use reach those who need them most. Elevate is an expert in water safety and is the administer for LeadCare Illinois, a state-wide lead in water testing program. Learn more at www.elevatenp.org.

The Joyce Foundation is a nonpartisan private foundation that invests in public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region. We support policy research, development, and advocacy in five areas: Education & Economic Mobility, Environment, Gun Violence Prevention & Justice Reform, Democracy and Culture. Joyce focuses its grant making in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and partners with funders to explore promising policy solutions in other states or at the federal level. Learn more at www.joycefdn.org

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