Don’t Drink the Water! The Poisoning of America’s Schoolchildren

By Crystal Grant, JD, MSW

With Thanksgiving only days away, American schoolchildren have much to be thankful for. Unfortunately, in many places across our country, clean drinking water in their schools is not one of them.

Generally, water is good for children. It quenches thirst, prevents dehydration, aids in digestion and flushes out harmful toxins. Parents frequently promote water as an alternative to unhealthy beverages like soda. During the school day, children access drinking water from fountains and sinks in their classes and restrooms. But in many communities, school drinking water contains elevated levels of lead, and that is undermining many of the goals we strive to achieve in public education.

Experts agree that there is no safe level of lead in a child’s bloodstream. Even low levels can result in physical impairments such as slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia. Lead in the bloodstream can also cause a low IQ, behavioral and learning problems and hyperactivity.

In 2015, a local pediatrician discovered that a significant number of children in Flint, Michigan, had lead poisoning. The children lived in neighborhoods with contaminated water, and unsurprisingly, some Flint schools tested positive for high levels of lead in their water.

Contaminated water in public school buildings isn’t a problem unique to Flint. This fall, Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti voluntarily tested the drinking water in multiple school buildings and found elevated levels of lead and copper. The school district responded by turning off the drinking water and is now exploring the use of hydration stations that filter out contaminants and encourage the use of refillable water bottles. Vitti is to be commended for his vigilance: There is no federal law that requires public schools to test their drinking water, and only eight states require schools to test for lead. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirms that 41% of schools have not.

Lead toxicity is higher in low-income neighborhoods and disproportionately impacts minority children. While the Safe Drinking Water Act regulates contaminants in the water provided by public systems, pipes and other equipment can contaminate clean water at the school site. The Department of Agriculture funds school lunch programs in public schools and childcare settings. Their mission to provide nutritious meals and safe drinking water is disingenuous without strictly enforced accountability standards. Ideally, all schools receiving public funding should test their drinking water for lead.

As a special education attorney, I have seen how lead poisoning can affect students and negatively influence the trajectory of their lives. There are steps we can all take to address the problem.

First, we can raise awareness by discussing the issue. Campaigns such as Get the Lead Out suggest asking your local school district whether they have lead pipes or plumbing.

You can go a step further by asking the school board to voluntarily test for lead in your district. If they are reluctant because of anticipated costs, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published a guide, Water Quality Funding Sources for Schools.

Finally, you can contact your governor and legislature to advocate for laws requiring testing and funding for remediation. Many states are developing resources and proposing legislation that addresses testing water for lead.

I am thankful for the current efforts to reduce lead poisoning, but they are inadequate. I hope that this movement will expand across our nation until all children have access to safe drinking water, at least in school.

Crystal Grant is a senior lecturing fellow and supervising attorney in the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke University School of Law.