It is time for Massachusetts to ensure safer water in schools by approving legislation calling for regular testing and requiring specific repairs to reduce high levels of lead and copper.
The state Department of Environmental Protection this month reported those high levels of lead and copper in drinking water at schools across Massachusetts. The report was based on water samples taken at 818 schools in 153 communities that volunteered for the testing between April 2016 and February 2017.
Across the state, 72 percent of those schools had at least one fixture that tested high for lead (at or above 15 parts per billion) or copper (1.3 parts per million). Those are the federal standards requiring action. In Hampshire County, the testing showed that 21 of 25 participating schools have high levels of lead in at least one fixture.
Local communities which were not part of the voluntary testing, including Northampton, have done their own testing and, according to officials, taken the appropriate steps when contaminants are found — including flushing water to reduce the risk of contamination, replacing fixtures and shutting off water fountains.
High levels of lead and copper in drinking water are health risks, especially in children. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. Lead is persistent, and it can bioaccumulate in the body over time.”
The EPA estimates that drinking water can account for 20 percent or more of a person’s overall exposure to lead, with other sources including paint, dust, soil, air and food.
Even low levels of lead in children’s blood can lead to behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia, according to the EPA.
And it also is a particular danger for pregnant women and their babies because it can result in reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth, the EPA reports.
Lead most often gets into drinking water as the result of pipes that contain lead or fixtures with lead solder that corrode.
While copper in “trace” amounts plays a role in maintaining good health, “consuming high levels of copper may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps,” according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
The problem is that uniform testing of school drinking water for high levels of lead or copper is not required by state or federal law, nor are there regulations governing how schools must respond when contaminants are found.
David Reckhow, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who worked with the state on the voluntary testing program, says he is concerned about the high levels of lead found in school water. Flushing is unlikely to be an adequate solution for the water sources with the highest levels of lead, according to Reckhow, and he questions whether all communities can afford the more extensive steps needed to permanently fix the problem.
“If you leave it up to local control, the wealthy communities will solve the problem, and the poor communities won’t be able to,” Reckhow told Gazette columnist Naila Moreira. “I think we need a broader program to do this, and that means state level, federal level.”
Proposed state legislation deserves support. An Act Ensuring Safe Drinking Water at Schools and Early Childhood Programs calls for regular testing of water at schools, replacement of service lines made of lead and installation of filters on faucets and fountains certified by NSF, an independent public health and safety organization.
The bill’s chief sponsors are Sen. Joan Lovely, of Salem, and Rep. Lori Ehrlich, of Marblehead, both Democrats, and 79 legislators are co-sponsors.
The Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group earlier this year launched a “Get the Lead Out” campaign and gave existing state laws a grade of “D,” describing them as inadequate in protecting school drinking water from contaminants. “Schools and day care centers should be safe places for our kids to learn and play, but Massachusetts is in the back of the class when it comes to protecting our kids from lead in drinking water,” Deirdre Cummings, MassPIRG legislative director, declared.
We urge local legislators to support quick approval for this legislation aimed at ensuring cleaner water for children to drink in schools.