A study from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health conducted in conjunction with researchers from the Nutrition Policy Institute at the University of California details lead concentrations in baseline drinking water samples as well as features of US state-level programs and policies to test school drinking water for lead in seven US states between 2016 and 2018. Though experts agree that there is no safe level of lead exposure, and despite growing awareness of the dangers of lead in drinking water, researchers found that many public school students in the US attended schools in 2016-2018 that did not have drinking water lead-testing programs.
To better understand how states are working to limit the harms of lead exposure in school drinking water, researchers identified and analyzed state-level policies and programs for lead testing in operation between January 1, 2016 and February 28, 2018 as well as state-level water testing data. The team looked at seven states operating programs, including analyzing data from over 5,500 schools that tested their drinking water.
Key findings from the study analysis include:
- Only one of the seven states required schools to test for lead in drinking water, while the other six had non mandatory programs or policies
- All states included some level of guidance on what to do when lead concentrations are higher than a state’s allowable limit (action level)
- In available data from the seven states, the percentage of schools identifying any sample with a lead concentration exceeding 5 parts per billion (ppb) ranged from 13% to 81% per state
- Lead concentrations in drinking water samples exceeded 5 ppb in 4%-25% of samples tested per school in the seven states
- All states identified instances of lead levels above a state’s action level
While federal policy says that schools must provide potable drinking water at no charge in areas where meals are served if a school is part of the National School Lunch Program, there is no federal policy that requires these schools to test their drinking water for lead. There is also no generally recognized standard for what concentration of lead in school drinking water is acceptable.
Improving federal guidance on testing school drinking water for lead, increasing knowledge among school staff, and increasing technical and financial support for more widespread testing programs could all lead to reducing students’ lead exposure in their school’s drinking water.
Read the abstract & full text of the paper
Cradock AL, Barrett JL, Poole MK, Flax CN, Vollmer L, Hecht C. Lead Concentrations in US School Drinking Water: Testing Programs, Prevalence, and Policy Opportunities, 2016‒2018. Am J Public Health. 2022 Sep;112(S7):S679-S689. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2022.306961.
About the Authors
Angie L. Cradock, Jessica L. Barrett, and Chasmine N. Flax are with the Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA. Mary Kathryn Poole is with the Department of Nutrition, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Laura Vollmer is with the Cooperative Extension, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Christina Hecht is with the Nutrition Policy Institute, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Oakland.