Research Reports

Lead in school drinking water

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The National Association of State Boards of Education and Chicago-based Elevate, an environmental nonprofit, have partnered to illuminate how states are dealing with the issue of lead in school drinking water – and to offer recommendations on how to improve.

Their report, How States are Handling Lead in School Drinking Water, outlines the prevalence and exposure of lead in school drinking water nationwide, the disparities in state lead-testing programs, and how the lack of uniform mitigation efforts is impacting children, for whom there is no safe level of lead exposure. It also advises how state leaders can tackle the problem at the policy level and help ensure that all students have access to safe drinking water in schools.

Funded by the Foundation, the report was released to coincide with National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, which highlights prevention awareness in the ongoing hope of reducing childhood exposure to lead.

Lead in drinking water is a longstanding challenge, but it received renewed interest in 2014 when residents of Flint, Michigan, were exposed to dangerously high lead levels in water service lines. The Flint crisis has sparked national dialogue on the nation’s aging water infrastructure and funding for overall improvement in the quality of drinking water, particularly in under-resourced communities.

The report also highlights the federal Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act (WIIN), which provides funding to all 50 states for mitigation efforts to eradicate lead in drinking water at schools and child-care facilities.

Among the report's findings:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 20 percent of lead exposure nationwide comes from drinking water—a rate that can reach 60 percent for infants drinking mixed formula.
  • Federal regulations do not require schools or child-care facilities to test for lead in drinking water.
  • Lead testing is mandatory in 18 states, including Illinois, and voluntary in 23 states, but policies and funding to mitigate sources of lead in water vary.

Finally, the report offers guidance to state leaders, including advocacy for effective and equitable testing efforts, uniform data collection, sharing and management, and coordinated outreach among various regulatory agencies. It also offers a number of short-term mitigation strategies while urging long-term permanent solutions such as service-line and fixture replacements.

"Schools are central to children's health and success,” the report concludes. “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.”

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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