What Do I Do if the Water in My Kid’s School Has Lead in It?

How to protect your kid from lead in drinking water

By Casey O'Brien

September 11, 2018


Photo by stacey_newman/iStock

In May 2017, two maintenance workers came into Geneviéve Stockfisch’s second-grade classroom at Entz Elementary in Mesa, Arizona, unannounced and began tinkering with the sink.  

When they left, Stockfisch noticed they’d left a sign behind. It said that the water was not to be used for drinking or cooking, because the water had tested positive for lead. Stockfisch had been teaching in that classroom, and drinking out of that sink, for 18 years. “I have three daughters,” Stockfisch said. “Teachers live in their classrooms. My girls drank that water for 18 years. Over 500 of my students drank that water.” 

She asked other teachers whether the same thing had happened in their classrooms. She seemed to be the only one. Later that day, she got an email clarifying the results: Her classroom sink had tested as having 500 ppb (parts per billion) lead particles in the drinking water. Confirmation testing—which ran a second sample of the water in her sink—came back even higher, at 1,300 ppb, which is over 80 times the 15 ppb limit that the EPA considers the point where public health action is necessary. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that schools keep drinking water lead levels below 1 ppb.

Lead can have serious health impacts, especially for children. It is a potent neurotoxin; the World Health Organization states that it can cause behavioral changes, developmental disabilities and loss of IQ. Exposure to even low levels of lead can also increase cardiovascular risk. Although some experts don’t think that small amounts of lead in school drinking water is likely to cause cognitive impairment, the EPA states that there is no safe level of lead for a child to be exposed. 

Stockfisch demanded that the school investigate all the sinks at Entz Elementary (they had only tested a few). She searched for old lead-testing results, only to find that the school’s sinks and water fountains hadn’t been tested since the school was built in the 1990s.  

Stockfisch’s next step was to contact parents whose children had been in her class—they had been informed about the results but not about their severity. They had also been told that the water at the school was safe for drinking—Stockfisch wasn’t so sure. She asked school officials not to remove her classroom sink until the source of the lead was found, but it was replaced over her protests. While pipes and service lines installed after the mid-1980s are meant to be lead-free, sometimes lead can still be found in plumbing fixtures, like spigots and faucets.

Stockfisch also began using a Twitter account to share information about lead in school drinking water. She asked for public records on lead testing from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and found that most schools in Arizona had often tested only one sink or pipe in the school, rather than testing throughout. 

Meanwhile, the Arizona Daily Independent reported that at another school, Hopi Elementary, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality encouraged the school not to inform parents of lead-testing results until they had been confirmed. The school waited weeks for the DEQ confirmation testing results, but after six weeks they broke down and told parents about the preliminary results anyway.  

While extreme, what happened at Entz and Hopi Elementary Schools are not isolated incidents. Detroit’s city school district recently decided to shut off all the drinking fountains in its schools, after testing revealed high lead levels at 16 of 24 recently tested schools. Although Flint, Michigan, is often (rightfully) referenced when discussing lead poisoning in the U.S., schools across the country, from New York to California, routinely test positive for lead in drinking water. A recent study by nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) using data crowdsourced from parents across the nation found that parents in 27 states reported getting letters from their schools about high lead-test results.  

When Kara Cook-Schultz became toxics director for PIRG, she expected that parents would report schools in cities with dilapidated infrastructure. Instead, she found that problems with lead in drinking water cropped up everywhere—in urban centers, in smaller, rural areas, in affluent school districts and less-funded ones. 

In California, a recent law, AB 746, requires lead testing in all public schools built before 2010 (this is the majority of the state’s schools). So far, a little over 3,000 schools have been tested. According to Beti Girma of the California Water Board, this has resulted in 149 instances of “actionable level exceedances” at 99 schools (some schools had multiple sources of lead). Those schools are required to take corrective action or shut down the drinking water source and can apply for grant funding to do so. 

Meanwhile, after almost two decades with her school district, Stockfisch chose to resign out of frustration with the way her school handled its lead problems. “This hasn’t been easy for me. I don’t like conflict. I like to make everyone happy. But when it comes to lead, I cannot just sweep it under the carpet. I am not OK with a school district doing that, or within the state.” 

Worried about lead in your kid’s school? Here are some suggestions: 

If you learn that a water sample at your kid’s school tests positive for lead, the most effective fix—replacing any lead pipes and service lines—is also the most expensive. Installing filters on the affected water source can make the water safer, but those can cost hundreds of dollars each, require maintenance to keep working, and may not be completely effective. Another option is to shut off the pipe that is causing the problem, which often also involves bringing in an alternate drinking water source, such as bottled water.  

Some schools try to get by with labeling sinks as not a safe source for drinking or filling water bottles, but that assumes that elementary-school-age children can read and will follow the directions on signs. Some parents choose to send their children to school with a water bottle from home (make sure it is reusable). 

PIRG also has a toolkit for parents to encourage schools and governments to take action, which includes templates for letters to the editor to send to local publications. 

Getting your child’s blood levels tested for lead is automatic in 11 states. In other states, it’s not always done at a medical checkup, so it’s worth looking to see the date of your child’s most recent test. Children that are on Medicaid are supposed to be tested by law, but Reuters found that only about 40 percent of Medicaid-enrolled children had been tested as required. In general, children who test over the recommended limit respond well to treatment and grow up to be perfectly healthy adults—however, it is important to catch any exposure as early as possible.