Lead in School Drinking Water: Information and Resources for Schools
Most schools receive their drinking water from public drinking water systems. These schools may or may not be conducting voluntary drinking water quality testing. Information provided on this webpage is for schools that are not public water systems and receive their drinking water from a public water system. Schools that provide their own water are regulated public water systems and are required to test for lead and other contaminants within the facility. Please visit the PWS switchboard for more information.
Health Effects of Lead
Exposure to lead is a significant health concern. Lead is a toxic metal that has no known safe level. All sources of lead in the environments of children should be effectively controlled or eliminated. Lead exposures are most dangerous when the human body is rapidly growing; therefore the most sensitive populations are pregnant women, bottle-fed babies, and children under the age of six.
Lead affects almost every organ and system in the body. The main target for lead toxicity is the nervous system, both in adults and children. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently considers blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (5 µg/dL) as “elevated”. Elevated blood lead levels in children are associated with lowered IQ, learning disabilities, poor classroom performance, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, impaired growth, and hearing loss.
Research shows that children from certain populations are at greater risk to suffer elevated blood lead. These at-risk populations:
- have low income (more likely to suffer poor nutrition, specifically iron and calcium deficiency which will dramatically increase the chances of suffering harmful health effects from lead),
- use traditional, folk, or ethnic remedies and cosmetics (some lead-containing examples include greta, azarcon, ghasard, ba-baw-san, kohl, and sindoor),
- are recent immigrants (likely to suffer prior lead exposure outside the U.S.),
- live in older, poorly maintained housing (likely containing lead-based paint), or
- have parents who are exposed to lead at work or through hobbies (such as welding, mining, making stained glass and pottery, frequently visiting gun ranges).
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (IDHW) encourages parents and caregivers to consider blood lead testing for their child if they belong to one or more of these at-risk populations.
How Lead Gets into School Drinking Water
Lead is not typically a contaminant coming from water in a well, spring, or surface water source. Lead can enter drinking water from a building’s plumbing system. It may be present in various parts of the plumbing system including lead solder, brass fixtures, water fountains, and lead or galvanized pipes. When water is left in the pipes and in contact with lead plumbing materials, lead may leach into the water. The amount of lead in drinking water depends on how corrosive the water is, the materials used to construct the plumbing fixtures, and how long the water has been in contact with lead in the pipes or fixtures. The longer water stands in the plumbing system, the more lead the water can absorb from lead based plumbing fixtures and components.
Testing for Lead
Testing for lead in schools, that are not regulated as public water systems, is not required. Testing for lead is recommended but can be complex. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the 3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools: Revised Technical Guidance to help school officials navigate the steps. Understanding the design of the facility, training staff to take samples correctly, and communicating clearly with parents, students, and teachers before and after sampling are all covered in this guidance document.
EPA recommends that schools collect 250 milliliters (mL) of first-draw samples (i.e., samples of stagnant water before any flushing or use occurs) from water fountains and other outlets used for consumption, and that the water fountains and/or outlets be taken out of service if the lead level exceeds 20 parts per billion (ppb). The sampling protocol for lead in schools is designed to pinpoint specific fountains and outlets that require remediation (e.g., water fountain replacement). The school sampling protocol maximizes the likelihood that the highest concentrations of lead are found because the first 250 mL are analyzed for lead after overnight stagnation. After initial use, lead concentrations from the fountains and/or outlets are usually significantly less; and in many cases not detected in samples.
Free Testing for Public Schools
Sample analysis for lead in schools, that are not regulated public water systems, is being offered free of charge by the Idaho Bureau of Labs (IBL). IBL serves as Idaho’s principal state laboratory for drinking water testing within IDHW's Division of Public Health. IBL is certified by the EPA drinking water office for lead analysis. Fees associated with public school lead testing will be waived by IDHW. Visit the IBL website and fill out the IBL supply request to order sample containers. IBL will send submittal paperwork with the sample containers. The same shipping container can be used to return the filled water bottles back to IBL.
Reducing Lead Levels
Routine prevention measures, as well as interim and permanent lead removal solutions, can help prevent exposure to elevated levels of lead. Schools should work closely with maintenance staff and any plumbers who may make repairs. Beginning in 2016, the Idaho Division of Building Safety added water fountains as part of their routine inspections of public schools.
Routine Control Measures
- Clean faucet aerators regularly.
- Use only cold water for food and beverage preparation. Hot water will dissolve lead more quickly than cold water and is likely to contain increased lead levels.
- Instruct students and staff to run the water briefly before drinking.
- Run all indoor faucets and water fountains before students arrive each morning to remove stagnant water that may have been in contact with interior plumbing for extended periods of time.
Interim (Short-Term) Control Measures
If initial sample results from a tap or fountain exceed 20 ppb, interim measures can be taken while you wait for follow-up test results or until a permanent solution has been put in place. In addition to the routine control measures listed above, consider providing bottled water and/or shutting off problem taps and/or fountains.
If initial and follow-up sample results from a tap or fountain exceed 20 ppb, you should examine permanent options for lead reduction. Some examples include:
- Replace fixtures with new “lead-free” products.
- Add point-of-use filtration devices certified to remove lead.
- Check for grounding wires attached to water pipes. An electrical current may accelerate the corrosion of lead in piping materials.
- Replace lead pipes, if present.
- Reconfigure building plumbing to bypass sources of lead contamination.
- Add automatic flushing valves to reduce water stagnation.
Informing the Public about Lead
In addition to testing for lead and remediating problems, a lead control program should also include a public information component. Any school conducting lead sampling should make the results publicly available due to the health effects of lead. If any lead exposures are identified, you should also inform all parents, teachers, students, and employee organizations of the activities being pursued to correct the problems found.
You should choose the best method(s) to communicate with the public. This may include a press release, letters or fliers, mailbox or paycheck stuffers, newsletters, meetings/presentations, web site posting, or email. When providing sample results, you should also provide a basis for interpreting and understanding the significance of those results. Public notification examples are provided in the 3T’s document below.
- EPA’s Lead in Drinking Water at Schools and Child Care Facilities
- 3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools: Revised Technical Guidance