Whenever Jamison Rich got thirsty after gym or recess, he took a drink from the nearest water fountain at his elementary school.
Only last month did his family learn that the water bubbling out of some fountains contained high levels of lead, a notorious toxin that can silently damage developing brains and slow growth in little bodies like his.
Recently, a blood test on the 7-year-old found more than twice the average level of lead for young children, even though as far as anyone knows he’s never come in contact with lead paint or tainted soil.
Jamison’s school, Caroline Elementary in Ithaca, N.Y., is one of hundreds across the nation where children were exposed to water containing excessive amounts of an element doctors agree is unsafe at any level, a USA TODAY NETWORK investigation found. An analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data showed about 350 schools and day-care centers failed lead tests a total of about 470 times from 2012 through 2015.
That represents nearly 20% of the water systems nationally testing above the agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion.
One water sample at a Maine elementary school was 41 times higher while another at a Pennsylvania preschool was 14 times higher. And a sink in a music-room bathroom at Caroline Elementary tested this year at 5,000 ppb of lead, results released by the school system show.
That’s the cutoff where the EPA labels a substance “hazardous waste.”
“It’s a scary thing. Nobody expects to have this in their schools,” said Jamison’s mom, Nicole Rich. “Who knows how big the problem actually is?”
Researchers say it could be very, very big.
But at this point it’s impossible to know how big because the federal government requires only about 10% of the nation’s schools and a tiny fraction of day cares — the 8,225 facilities that run their own water systems — to test for lead at all.
The EPA estimates that about 90,000 public schools and half a million child-care facilities are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act because they depend on water sources such as municipal utilities expected to test their own water. That means parents have no assurance lead isn’t seeping into children’s water from a school building’s pipes, solder or fixtures.
In fact, many schools that have tested for lead voluntarily have found it, hinting at the true scope of the problem.
“There’s a regulatory black hole when it comes to schools and day-care centers,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech researcher who studies lead in water nationally. “In some ways, it’s an official endorsement of exposure to lead and large-scale health harms that go undetected.”
Babies and children also are left vulnerable at schools and day cares required to test for lead. The USA TODAY NETWORK investigation found spotty enforcement from the EPA and some state governments, as well school leaders’ failures to test as often as required, notify parents about problems in a timely way or fix problems immediately in many cases.
Doctors stress that lead is a cumulative poison that builds up in the body and comes from several sources.
A groundbreaking study from Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who studied lead exposure among children in Rochester, N.Y., found that about 20% was attributed to water, 10% to 15% to contaminated soil and 20% to 30% from other sources such as paint dust. He adds that many variables and sources should be considered, and not everything can be explained.
Compounding the problem:
- Lead-tainted water isn’t used just for drinking and washing. It’s often used for cooking school lunches — where it can wind up in foods like pasta — or making infant formula, posing a particular risk to babies because they consume so much water compared to their size.
- Lead concentrations can rise as water goes unused and stays in contact with plumbing since schools and day cares often are vacant for long stretches. Also, lead particles tend to release sporadically, so a child can go days drinking from a contaminated water fountain before ingesting the toxin.
“It’s like Russian roulette,” Lambrinidou said.
- Blood testing for lead poisoning is typically done in babies, not school-aged children. Symptoms usually don’t show up until dangerous levels have accumulated and even then can be vague, so they often are missed until the damage — such as lowered IQ, behavior problems and developmental delays — has been done.
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SOURCE: USA Today, Laura Ungar