Tackling the Lack of School-Based Lead Testing
When EPA and Virginia Tech scientists found toxic levels of lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, in 2015, the city’s public schools struggled to address the risk to student health. “We couldn’t tell parents that we can test their child’s water,” said Pamela Pugh, a Michigan State Board of Education member who also serves as chief public health advisor for the city. “We couldn’t tell them that the schools who don’t have adequate teachers are going to now have an adequate number of maintenance workers to test their water.”
Despite the national attention Flint received, little has changed in requirements for lead testing in Michigan schools, Pugh said. Nor is Michigan alone. No federal law requires the testing of drinking water for lead in schools that receive water from public water systems, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) on lead in school drinking water. GAO asked a random national sampling of school districts in 2017 whether they had tested for lead in water in the preceding 12 months. GAO followed up in 2019 with a report on school districts’ efforts to address lead-based paint in schools. Both reports revealed a dearth of lead testing in water or paint in school buildings and problems with lead in schools that had tested for it.
Elevated blood lead levels in children—even at very low levels—contribute to learning deficits and behavioral and attentional problems. There is no safe level of lead for children, particularly those six years old and younger. A Rhode Island study from 2018 links disparities in third-grade test scores to low levels of lead exposure in preschool-aged children, particularly among low-income and African American children. The study goes on to show how a one-unit decrease in average blood lead levels reduces the probability of scoring substantially below proficient in reading and math. Nationally, 44 states have adopted laws addressing lead hazards broadly. But NASBE’s State Policy Database on School Health shows only 13 states including the District of Columbia that require school-based testing of lead in drinking water. None requires the testing of lead-based paint in all public schools, though policy varies on state action to prevent lead poisoning through exposure to paint in older buildings. […]