DEQ, Schools Partner to Keep Kids Safe from Lead in Drinking Water

By Marie E. Owens

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We have all heard about the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water. Some of you may have wondered if anything like this could happen here in Utah. While the natural water chemistry in Michigan is different than we have here, the major cause of that city’s problem was a combination of corrosive water and a neglected, poorly funded drinking-water infrastructure. We monitor these things closely here in Utah.

But as tragic as the situation has been for the population of Flint, it reminds us all how delicate the balance between clean water and contaminated water can be. That’s why the Division of Drinking Water (DDW), in collaboration with the Utah Department of Health and Utah school districts, is taking proactive steps to ensure schoolchildren aren’t exposed to elevated levels of lead in the drinking water at their schools.

One of our highest priorities is protecting children from the negative effects of lead exposure. Because children’s nervous systems are still developing, they are more susceptible to the harmful health effects of lead. Public water systems have been sampling for lead in drinking water since the Lead and Copper Rule was enacted in 1991. Sampling results have shown that the vast majority of our water is well below the action limit set by EPA.

But the action limit for lead in drinking water is an indicator of how corrosive the water is on pipes and faucets; it’s not a health-based limit like many other drinking water standards. And while this rule requires water systems to sample in homes within their service area, federal law does not require testing of drinking water in schools. This has left us with no data to determine the possible exposure levels in our schools.

Since children spend more waking hours at school than at home, we feel it is important to confirm the risk of exposure from lead in the drinking water in schools. We have no reason to believe that we will find anything different than what we have found in Utah homes. But science tells us the possibility exists, and the risk of not knowing, no matter how small, is just too high for our children.

That’s why DDW is rolling out a program to encourage every school in Utah to sample their drinking water for lead within the year. Since we don’t regulate school districts, this is an entirely voluntary partnership between the State, public water suppliers, local health departments, school districts, and other stakeholders. Six school districts have either agreed to collect samples or have already collected samples. Additional school districts will begin testing in the fall.

We are recommending that every school collect a sample from a drinking fountain and the cafeteria. In addition, we’re offering schools a wide range of  technical resources on our website, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) “3 T’s — Training, Testing, Telling” guidance to helps schools develop a sampling/testing plan and implement proper sampling procedures. We’ve also produced a flyer with simple follow-up steps schools can take if sample results show elevated levels of leads. Schools can also reach out to their local health departments, public water systems, or the Rural Water Association of Utah for individualized instruction or support with in-school sampling.

Although DDW won’t be conducting the sampling, we will be collecting, storing, analyzing, and interpreting the test data. We will use the data to identify schools with elevated lead levels as well as affected areas within the school. Most importantly, we will make this information available to school districts and the public once we receive and confirm sampling results.

Our hope is to collect data throughout the state so we can say with confidence that our children are safe. If any of the samples show elevated levels of lead, further investigation and testing can determine the extent of the problem and help schools put interim or permanent remedies in place quickly.

We care about Utah’s schoolchildren, which is why we’ve taken this proactive approach. We’re proud to be leading this effort and appreciative of all the support we’ve received from school districts, local health departments, public water systems, and the Rural Water Association of Utah. We will continue to do everything we can to safeguard our children’s health by ensuring their school’s drinking water is lead-free.

I became the Director of Drinking Water in January 2017. I attended Utah State University, where I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Engineering. During that time, I worked at the Water Research Laboratory in Logan, which led to an internship with the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy, which led to an offer to work fulltime for Metro as a Process Engineer. From there, I moved to Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District as their Water Quality Division Manager. It was at Jordan Valley that realized how much I love working with people and mentoring new professionals. Somewhere along the way I managed to find a wonderful husband who has been willing to put up with my quirkiness, and we have four amazing kids. They are what I am really proud of in my life, and they keep me grounded and humble. They are also my adventure buddies. I love everything about water and love interacting with the people who share this passion.