In January 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a letter to all State Superintendents recommending that schools test their drinking water for lead. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Utah Department of Health (DOH) are partnering with Utah schools to conduct voluntary sampling for lead in their drinking water. While sampling for lead is not currently required for schools serviced by a public water system, DEQ and DOH are urging schools to sample the drinking water in each building to ensure the health and safety of schoolchildren and staff.
While drinking water provided by Utah’s public water systems must meet federal and state lead standards, lead can still leach into a school’s drinking water from plumbing materials and fixtures within the school and move through the school’s water-distribution system. Because schools tend to be large, it’s easier for water to stagnate in the plumbing and increase lead concentrations in the school above levels found in the water delivered by the supplier. Testing each school building is necessary to identify and remedy any problems that may exist.
DEQ and DOH reached out to several school districts this spring and asked them to participate in a voluntary pilot study to sample for lead in the drinking water at their schools. While most of the pilot-study test results fell below the EPA action level of 15 micrograms per liter (µg/L), some of the samples exceeded that level. Schools with elevated levels are remediating the problem through fixture replacement, system flushing, and in-school water treatment followed by resampling to ensure that lead levels in the drinking water have fallen below the action level. Schools may need to establish a regular sampling schedule depending on the control measures they put into place to remove lead from their drinking water.
Schools with lead levels above the action level can use a variety of methods to reduce lead levels and remediate the problem. Actions may include:
- Implementing a flushing program and water usage plan to safeguard against lead exposure. This program may include flushing faucets at sinks and/or water fountains and limiting water consumption for food and beverage preparation to cold-water faucets.
- Replacing faucets or other drinking water outlets found to be above the action level for lead.
- Physically disconnecting faucets or plumbing with high levels of lead.
- Installing a water-treatment system.
- Posting notices at faucets that are being investigated after a high lead result.
- Providing bottled water
Utah schools with sample results above the action level are implementing some or all of these actions, depending on the source of the problem. For example:
- One school tested below the action level while school was in session. The school tested again during the summer after the water had been sitting in the pipes for about a month. The summer test results were significantly higher than the action level. Stagnating water in a school’s drinking water distribution is known to result in high readings. The school flushed the system and resampled. The follow-up sample didn’t detect lead in the drinking water. The school plans to flush the system regularly and resample frequently to ensure the safety of its drinking water.
- Another school sampled their drinking water and the results were above the action level. The school identified the plumbing responsible for the elevated lead levels and replaced it over the summer.
Testing is the only way to know for sure whether a school has elevated lead levels in its drinking water, and as the examples above show, the remedies can be relatively straightforward. Schools with more complex issues are encouraged to contact to the Division of Drinking Water (DDW) for technical support and assistance.
Lead Sampling Results
DDW has compiled and summarized the results of ongoing sampling on its online drinking-water database, WaterLink.
This sampling report provides the school name, school district, county, sample results (above or below the action level of 15µ/L), actions being taken, detailed comments on all actions taken to bring the lead content below the action level, and the date of the last update. The search bar at the top right allows users to easily locate their school. Not all Utah schools have conducted lead sampling yet; the division will update the database when sampling results from these schools become available.
Those wishing a more detailed report of sampling results can contact Emily Frary at (801) 536-0070.
Action Level for Lead
EPA is required by law to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur. These health-based levels are called maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs). EPA set the MCLG for lead in drinking water at zero because the best available science has not been able to determine a safe level for lead in drinking water. However, the agency did set an action level of 15 micrograms per liter (µg/L) that triggers additional actions by public water systems if over 10 percent of the faucets sampled exceed this level. In 2015, EPA began work on developing a health-based household standard for lead in drinking water; these studies are still underway. Since the 15 µg/L action level is the only standard available under current law, states sampling for lead in their schools measure their test results against this standard.
Children’s exposure to lead in drinking water at school is only a small part of their overall potential exposure. Children typically only drink water in schools for a portion of the day. While it is unlikely that lead in drinking water at schools would cause staff or children to have significantly elevated blood lead levels, it can contribute to overall exposure. Risk will vary, however, depending on the individual, the circumstances, and the amount of water consumed.
The most important thing to do is identify and remediate suspected sources of lead. Parents who still have concerns may wish to contact their doctor for blood-level testing.
Drinking Water Safety – Public Water Systems
Utah’s public water systems employ a number of measures to ensure the water is safe to drink. The Safe Drinking Water Act’s (SDWA’s) Lead and Copper Rule requires public water systems to control the corrosivity of their water. (Highly corrosive water was responsible for the high levels of lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water). Systems must collect samples at customer taps in homes that are more likely to have plumbing materials containing lead. If the lead concentrations exceed the 15 µ/L action level in more than 10 percent of the taps sampled, the water system must take additional actions to control corrosion in the drinking water. SDWA also requires public water systems to prepare and distribute an annual water quality report called the Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) to its customers. The CCR contains information about any contaminants found in the water, including lead.
Most lead problems in homes, however, do not originate with the finished drinking water provided by your water supplier, but from lead pipes, solder, and fixtures within the house.
Drinking Water Safety – Homes
The water systems at schools are not unlike water systems found in other buildings. Older plumbing systems and fixtures can contain lead pipes or solder that can allow lead to enter tap water. Families can reduce their exposure to lead in their homes by taking these simple actions:
- Flush pipes before drinking if a faucet or pipe hasn’t been used for six hours or more. First thing in the morning, after returning from work, and when returning from vacation are all good times to flush household plumbing.
- Use only water from the cold-water tap for drinking and cooking. Hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead.
- Clean faucet screens (aerators) regularly.
- Do not boil water to reduce lead. Boiling water does not reduce lead in drinking water.
- Check with the public water supplier for the home to see if it uses lead pipes or service lines and if they have been partially or wholly replaced.
- When purchasing replacement plumbing parts, make sure the products have been tested and certified as lead-free.
- Consult the latest copy of the Consumer Confidence Report for lead results for the public water system servicing the house. The name of the public water system can be found on the household’s water bill.
- Homeowners can also sample for lead by contacting a certified lab. Labs provide bottles and sampling instructions. The cost is approximately $20.
- Frequently Asked Questions about Lead in Drinking Water
- Routine, Short-Term, and Permanent Lead-Control Measures in Schools
- Blood Lead Exposure in Utah
Testing guidance is available to schools through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) booklet 3T’s for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools. DDW, along with local health departments, the Rural Water Association of Utah, and public water suppliers, are available to provide schools with additional technical assistance.
Training school officials will raise awareness of the potential occurrences, causes, and health effects of lead in drinking water, assist school officials in identifying potential areas where elevated lead may occur, and help them establish a testing plan to identify and prioritize testing sites. Schools can consult the resources below for additional information.
Testing drinking water helps schools identify potential problems and take corrective actions as necessary.
- Conducting Lead Sampling in Schools and Child Care Facilities
- School Identifier List
- Follow-Up Steps for High Lead/Copper Sample
- Flushing- A Short Term Solution
Telling students, parents, staff, and the larger community about monitoring programs, potential risks, the results of testing, and remediation actions ensures