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North Carolina gets an ‘F’ for failing to address lead in school drinking water

New Environment North Carolina study assesses whether state is improving on this pressing issue
For Immediate Release

Raleigh - Reacting to pervasive lead contamination in schools' drinking water, Environment North Carolina gave North Carolina an 'F' grade today for failing to address the problem, according to a new national report.

Representatives from Clean Water for Carolina Kids, lead exposure experts, Wake County Board of Education Member Roxie Cash (R-Dist. 3), and Representatives Harry Warren (R-Rowan), Brian Turner (D-Buncombe), Holly Grange (R-New Hanover), and Stephen M. Ross (R-Alamance) all joined Environment North Carolina in calling for swift action to reduce lead in drinking water in North Carolina’s schools and daycares.

“Schools should be safe places for our kids to learn and play but too few have tested for lead in their water. And where they have tested, too many have found unsettling results” said Drew Ball, director of Environment North Carolina. “We need policies that actually get the lead out of faucets and fountains in our schools and pre-schools.”

As more North Carolina schools test their water, they are finding lead. For example, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools tested fixtures at 89 of its oldest schools and found unsafe levels in 41 of them. Guilford County Schools found similar problems when they've tested.

“Young children absorb a lot more lead from their water sources than adults and when they are exposed to lead. It can lead to a permanent decrease in IQ, a decrease of performance in school and an increase of juvenile delinquency,” said Dr. Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, a professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“The health and well-being of our children is not a partisan issue. And no child should be drinking water that could be harming their health, especially at a place where they are going to learn everyday,” said Representative Brian Turner.

The picture from states that have done comprehensive testing is alarming: In Massachusetts, for example, more than half of the 43,000 school taps tested since 2016 showed lead in water.

“While most school systems in the U.S. have a protocol to protect students from the threat of intruders, few schools are required to ensure that the water students drink is free from the threat of lead exposure,” said Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, a senior research scientist at RTI International and the Co-Director of Clean Water for Carolina Kids. “It is widely agreed that any lead exposure is associated with health effects in children.”

Most schools and pre-schools still have fountains or faucets that contain lead, and wherever there is lead, there is a risk of water contamination.

“We have the tools to correctly test for lead in water at each tap, communicate the risks, and mitigate exposure in many cases using no-cost and low-cost approaches. Lead exposure is preventable and we should remove it as a threat to our children's future,” said Redmon.

“The take away from the Clean Water for Carolina Kids Study is that some North Carolina daycares are still at risk for lead exposure. We can do something about lead now and we can 100% attack this together,” said Dr. Keith Levine, a senior research chemist at RTI International and Co- Director of Clean Water for Carolina Kids.

Nevertheless, current state law does far too little to prevent children’s drinking water from becoming laced with lead at school. There are no regulations in place that require schools in North Carolina to test for lead in drinking water. In Environment North Carolina’s comparison of 32 states, these shortcomings gave North Carolina a failing grade.

House Bill 386 - “Ensure Safety of School Drinking Water”, introduced by Representatives Warren, Turner, Grange and Ross, would begin to address that by requiring testing for lead, change the lead trigger level to 5 ppb in drinking water and create a Child Lead Exposure Prevention Fund for remediation. As this bill is moves through and is shaped by the legislative process, it could become a mechanism through which our state protects our children from the dangers of lead in their school drinking water.

“Protecting our children is one of the most important jobs of our state and I’m excited to be working with my colleagues, Representatives Grange, Ross and Turner on legislation that will work to fulfill that responsibility,” said Representative Harry Warren.

“I can tell you that our children deserve nothing but the best that we have to offer. The Wake County School Board recognizes that a good foundation of learning starts with ensuring that our children’s health and well-being are protected”, said Roxie Cash, a member of the Wake County School Board.

Environment North Carolina’s counterparts are working with doctors, parents, and community leaders in seven other states to advance policies that Get the Lead Out of schools and daycares.

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Environment North Carolina is dedicated to protecting our water, air and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives.