Environment North Carolina
Citizen Times
Krista Early

By now, schoolchildren in North Carolina have brought markers, scissors, folders and other supplies to class. Yet there is one key supply that many of our children lack as they begin a new school year: safe, lead-free water at school. 

Of the few NC school districts that have tested their water for lead, the results are alarming. Only two counties in NC have voluntarily tested their schools’ drinking water. Both Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Guilford County Schools found unsafe levels of lead in the fixtures of its oldest schools. These confirmed cases of lead in our schools’ water are, in all likelihood, just the tip of the iceberg. In states where schools have tested their water extensively, the data show pervasive lead contamination— from Montana to Massachusetts, New Jersey to Texas, and Oregon to Illinois.

While these results are news to many of us, they should not be surprising. Until 2014, significant amounts of lead were used in faucets, fountains, solder and other parts. And wherever water is exposed to lead, there is an inherent risk of contamination.

Lead is highly toxic and especially damaging to children — impairing how they learn, grow, and behave. And it only takes a tiny amount of lead to do harm.

In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that "In children, low levels of (lead) exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells." 

Medical researchers estimate that more than 24 million children in America today risk losing IQ points due to low levels of lead. ADHD, anxiety and depression are also linked to exposure of even very low levels of lead.

Fortunately, we also know how to solve this problem. Quite simply, we need to “get the lead out.” That means replacing faucets, fountains and other lead-bearing parts that can contaminate the water our children drink. And until we can ensure that our school’s water delivery systems are entirely lead-free, we’ll also need to install filters certified to remove lead — on every tap used for cooking and drinking in our schools. 

Lastly, we’ll need follow up testing to ensure that lead levels in school water do not exceed 1 part per billion, the limit recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

No doubt, this “get the lead out” regimen might seem daunting at first. So let’s think of what we tell our kids when they are facing a big homework assignment. We tell them it’s important to get started — piece by piece tackling the problem until the job is done. Some school districts around the country have started to do what they can on their own — replacing old fountains with new water-bottle filling stations or setting stricter limits, more in line with AAP’s guidance. We also remind our children to seek help from the resources around them - teachers, parents, etc. To be sure, North Carolina school districts are going to need help with resources to ensure safe drinking water.  

The state can help, but we’ll also need the federal government to step up with major funding to get the lead out. Needless to say, that won’t happen if Congress or the administration decide to cut EPA's budget.

With the coursework laid out for solving this problem, now is the time for our leaders to declare their commitment to get the lead out of our schools’ water. Protecting our children’s brains should be a no-brainer. 

Krista Early directs Environment North Carolina’s campaigns to protect the state’s waterways and drinking water. Environment North Carolina is a statewide citizen-based environmental advocacy organization working for a cleaner, greener, healthier future.