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U.S. schools are failing to protect kids from lead in drinking water, report finds

Schools weak on lead water regulation: report
U.S. schools "failing to protect their kids" from lead in drinking water: report 04:37

U.S. schools are not doing enough to protect students from drinking water contaminated with lead, according to a new report out from the Environment America Research & Policy Center and U.S. PIRG Education Fund. The report found "a pattern of widespread contamination of drinking water" at schools nationwide.

Just nine states and Washington D.C. have mandatory testing laws and there is currently no federal rule requiring schools to test their drinking water for lead if they get their water from a public water system, reports CBS News' Anna Werner. A government study last year found only 43 percent of school districts said they test for lead in drinking water. About a third of those districts said they found elevated lead levels and many parents likely have no idea their children may be drinking it.

Julie Ma preps water bottles for her five- and six-year-old daughters to take to their Boston elementary school because water fountains there were turned off due to lead contamination. That was three years ago. Since then, the district has brought in bottled water for students to drink.
"We had gotten a letter from the superintendent that her school was one of the schools that tested above the 15 parts per billion and that as a precaution they were turning off all the water fountains even though it was only one fountain that was tested," Ma said.  "It's concerning. I really would like to get the lead out of the water supply as fast as possible for the students ... Many schools don't even know if they have it and haven't been able to make those changes."

She's right. The report, which reviewed school drinking water standards in 31 states and the District of Columbia, found regulations in most states are "too weak" to protect children from lead contamination in their school's water.
"Of the 32 states, including the District of Columbia, that we surveyed, 22 of them are failing to protect their kids from lead in drinking water," said John Rumpler who co-authored the report.

The problem? The group says it's the fixtures: fountains, faucets and other parts that contain lead. The report cites an Ohio school drinking fountain that had more than 100 times the EPA's lead action level for tap water, an Illinois school at 212 times that level and one drinking fountain at a Massachusetts school with nearly 1,500 times the lead action level. All of those have been replaced but the group is pushing for all schools to simply get the lead out by replacing fixtures, or at a minimum, installing and maintaining filters "on every faucet or fountain used for cooking and drinking."

"Not every solution is going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so filters are, you know, $100, $200, some of them are even less, so that's a low-cost solution," Rumpler said. "But you're absolutely right. At the end of the day, not all communities are going to be able to tackle this problem on their own, and that's why we're excited to see states that are stepping up and showing leadership in helping communities invest in reducing this problem."

But Rumpler said the federal government needs to step up too, with more funding and a stricter standard for lead since children's health experts agree that no amount of lead is safe for children.

On Wednesday, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler told CBS News he plans to update drinking water regulations.

"This is regulation that hasn't been updated in over 20 years and this is a proposal that we're gonna be putting out this summer that I think is gonna help a lot of areas make sure and ensure the public that they have safe drinking water," Wheeler said.

Wheeler says as part of that the EPA will look at the possibility of requiring testing for school drinking water. If you're a parent and want information about your child's school, you'll have to reach out to your school district. And, again, pediatric experts say there is no safe level of lead exposure for children; it impacts their growth and learning.

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