Many older water faucet units contain fittings with brass, which contains up to 8 percent lead, or leaded solder in the copper piping, both of which can leach lead into the water.
Many older water faucet units contain fittings with brass, which contains up to 8 percent lead, or leaded solder in the copper piping, both of which can leach lead into the water. Photo courtesy: Steven Depolo, Flickr Creative Commons

The high profile lead-in-water problem in Flint, Michigan has prompted state lawmakers’ concern over the condition of the water in school buildings. But that concern hasn’t translated into action, or funding to address the problem.

By Rose Hoban

This week, hundreds of thousands of North Carolina children returned to school, and returned to slurping water from fountains, eating cafeteria food prepared with water, and washing their hands.

And for another year, there’s little way to know whether there’s any lead in that water.

Benhaven Elementary in Olivia was one of two older Harnett County schools where officials found lead in some water fountains and sinks. Photo courtesy Harnett County Schools

At least half of North Carolina’s school buildings were built before 1987, a time when lead was still permitted in piping and in the metals used to seal the joints in pipes. But there’s no requirement to test the water, not in North Carolina, not in most states.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has focused some state lawmakers’ attention on lead levels in water. North Carolina was no exception: In the final days of this year’s work session that ended July 1, legislative leaders moved a bill that would have mandated testing of water in North Carolina’s older school buildings.

But in the chaotic final days of the session, the bill made it through the House of Representatives only to get bogged down in the Senate before the legislature recessed until next year.

And despite the desire of some lawmakers for water testing in schools, there’s no money for testing, no oversight from the state on how to test, no indication of where school boards might send test results and no state agency mandated to keep track.

In short, even if there were a lead problem at a school, there’s no roadmap for what to do next.

Little authority

Last week, officials in Harnett County announced they had found low levels of lead in two of their schools, both buildings constructed in the 1920s.

Erwin Elementary was one of two schools in Harnett County where officials found lead in some fountains and sinks. The county has a total of 28 schools. Photo courtesy: Harnett County Schools

School district spokeswoman Patricia Harmon-Lewis said the decision to test over the summer was driven by the school board, “because we have older schools.”

“We had several parents who had brought it up to some of our school administrators and officials, just raising the question, had we ever done it,” she said. “And knowing… that some of our schools are older, it was a conversation.”

Harmon-Lewis said the results came back just over the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for lead in water in several spots in the two schools – a handful of water fountains and in some bathrooms.

The county school district sent a letter home to children’s parents and notified the county manager, public works and the health director.

But no one at the state level.

That’s the way it works, said Ben Matthews, who oversees facilities for the state Department of Public Instruction. When school districts decide to test their water, they don’t ask him. They don’t report results to DPI, the Department of Health and Human Services or the Department of Environmental Quality.

They don’t have to tell anyone at the state level.

Matthews said it would be good to know whether schools have a problem with their water “because we certainly want the public schools to have safe water in all of them.”

But he also said that when that bill was in the General Assembly he realized that there would be no oversight at the state level.

“The local health departments have more power over the public schools than we do,” Matthews said. “For example, if a deadly mold were found in the school, the local health department has the power to close the school. In the DPI, to my knowledge, we don’t have any direct statutory authority to close a school.”

“We in this department are basically a conduit of information,” he said.

Matthews did that North Carolina has at least 1,334 schools built before 1987, and 973 schools after building codes changed to require pipes without lead solder. Another 324 schools – he doesn’t know. He also doesn’t have any idea about the condition of buildings used by charter and private schools.

“We send out a survey every five years… one of the things they’re supposed to tell us is the date they were built,” he said.

Toothless standard

The EPA sets a minimum standard of 15 parts per billion for lead in drinking water, and municipal water authorities must ensure there’s no lead flowing from their treatment plants. But there are a lot of pipes between treatment and tap. Many of those pipes still have lead solder and brass fittings, both of which can leach lead into the water flowing from a faucet.

Many older water faucets and drinking fountain units contain fittings with brass, which contains up to 8 percent lead, or leaded solder in the copper piping, both of which can leach lead into the water. Photo courtesy: Steven Depolo, Flickr Creative Commons

A survey done earlier this year by USA Today found problematic levels of lead in schools in 42 states. North Carolina had scant data to add to the USA Today database.

It was that investigation that prompted Rep. Mike Hager (R-Rutherfordton), who was House majority leader before stepping down this summer, to file the bill calling for mandatory lead testing in all North Carolina schools built before 1987.

“That started me thinking if we do have a problem in North Carolina, we really need to know,” he told NC Health News at the time.

But the proposal quickly ran off the rails. One of the biggest sticking points was money. There was a provision to use unspent funds in the DHHS budget to cover testing, but no indication of what to do if the news was bad. A positive test could indicate the need to replace just one water fountain, or it could mean re-plumbing an entire school.

“If we get a report back at some point that some school has too high of levels, what happens on the remediation side?” asked Leanne Winner, the lobbyist for the North Carolina School Boards Association.

New York, which became the only state in the country to mandate testing for lead in school water this summer, partly solved that problem: Their legislature allocated state money to match local remediation funds.

But in North Carolina, counties are on their own.

In Harnett County, they’re grappling with what to do.

“Instead of just not using one sink or one water fountain, we just decided for both schools, school-wide, we would stop the use of water fountains and we brought in those little water coolers… with the cups. And we just placed those every place where there was a water fountain,” she said, so as not to confuse kids as to which units they could or couldn’t use.

“Same thing with sinks and bathrooms… we’re doing hand sanitizers in all bathrooms right now until the time everything is completed and a decision is made on what the end result is going to be.”

Harmon-Lewis said she doesn’t know what the end result will be cost-wise. The county is currently performing follow-up tests.

“Then once all that has come back, there will be another meeting to decide what the end result is going to be… how will we resolve this issue,” she said.

Letter-Benhave & Erwin (PDF)

Letter-Benhave & Erwin (Text)
The letter sent home to parents of children at Benhaven and Erwin Elementary Schools in Harnett County.

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

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