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By Greg Barnes

Parents of students at Red Oak Elementary School in Nash County were never notified after federal officials found excessive levels of lead in the school’s water in July 2015.

Instead, school administrators posted a notice on a brick wall in the school’s kitchen. Under state law, it was the only notification they were required to provide, despite the dangers that lead poses to children.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, even low levels of lead exposure to children can damage their nervous systems and cause learning disabilities, stunted growth, hearing loss, low IQ and impaired formation and function of blood cells. And a new study published this week in JAMA Psychiatry adds to the growing body of research that lead exposure can have adverse mental health effects as children grow.

But the children at Red Oak Elementary were out for summer break when the high lead levels were detected. By the time they returned to classes, the Asheville Citizen Times reported, subsequent tests showed that the lead levels had dropped to below 15 parts per billion, the level the EPA sets as the threshold for safe water provided by public utilities.

Nothing else was done at the school. Nothing had to be.

North Carolina has no law requiring testing and remediation of excessive levels of lead in the state’s more than 100 school systems. It has no law saying parents have to be told when high lead levels are found.

State lawmakers in the North Carolina General Assembly tried to change that in 2016 and again in 2017. House members introduced bills that would have required testing for lead in schools and daycares and remediation when the levels exceeded the 15 parts per billion threshold. Both bills died in committee.

Former state Rep. Mike Hager, the primary sponsor of the initial bill, blames a lack of commitment and concerns over funding.

Hager said lawmakers, school administrators and others thought it would cost too much to test all of the schools and childcare centers and remove faucets and fixtures — possibly even entire plumbing systems — in those facilities where excessive lead levels were found.

Before a federal law took effect in 1988, schools, homes and other buildings commonly used lead solder to join pipes. They also used brass fittings, faucets and fixtures that contained lead. The lead can — and often does — leach into drinking water.

Hager estimated that it would cost roughly $4 million to $5 million to test and remediate the lead in schools and daycares, a small price to pay, he said, in a $22.2 billion budget.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer,” Hager said. “I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t catch fire. Three years and Flint, Michigan, later, and still nothing has been done that I know of.”

Echoes of Flint

School systems and state governments across the country began to take a second look at lead in schools in 2015, at the start of the Flint water crisis.

That city had changed its water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the less expensive – and more polluted – Flint River. Changes in water processing caused lead to leach from the water pipes, exposing more than 100,000 people to potentially harmful levels. The pipes continue to be replaced today. A state report in 2016 estimated that it would cost $80 million to replace about 10,000 lead water lines in the city. The entire cost of fixing the problems was estimated at $216 million.

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Hager, the former Republican state representative from Rutherford County, said he started working on his bill to remove lead from schools and childcare centers after USA Today published a series of articles on the subject in 2016.

Analyzing EPA data, the national newspaper found that nearly 2,000 water systems in the United States — including schools and daycares — could be contaminated with lead. Hager said the article mentioned that North Carolina was among the states with the worst problems.

Armed with the same data the EPA had used, Hager and other lawmakers drafted a bill citing 79 public schools or child care centers in 44 North Carolina counties that had been found to contain excessive levels of lead.

Hager said he doesn’t have a list of the 79 schools and centers. The state departments of Public Instruction, Health and Human Services and Environmental Quality all say they don’t have one, either.

That means there is no way of knowing whether the lead problems in those buildings were eliminated, or if parents were even notified.

Photo credit: MarkBuckawicki, Wikimedia Creative Commons

According to the CDC, in the past, a child could have a blood level of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, before health officials got concerned. But in 2012, the agency revised its “level of concern” downward to 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood.

Now, the EPA emphasizes that there is no safe level of lead exposure. Its maximum contaminant level for lead is 0 parts per billion in drinking water. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration caps the lead level in bottled water at 5 parts per billion, and the American National Standards Institute sets it at 10 parts per billion for certified water filters.

No requirement for action

In July, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report that said only 43 percent of school districts nationwide tested for lead in school drinking water in 2016 or 2017. Those schools tested serve 35 million students. An estimated 41 percent of the nation’s school districts, serving 12 million students, had not tested for lead at all, and another 16 percent of systems did not respond to the government survey.

Many of the school districts that did not test were in rural areas.

According to the report, elevated lead levels were found in an estimated 37 percent of the school districts tested. All school districts with excessive lead levels took steps to reduce or eliminate exposure, including replacing water fountains, installing filters or new fixtures, or providing bottled water, the report said.

Citing the EPA, the report said at least eight states require schools to test for lead as of 2017. The rest of the states, including North Carolina, have no such provision.

But that could soon change.

State Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican from Salisbury, said he plans to reintroduce a bill he co-sponsored in 2017 that was almost identical to the bill Hager wrote.

Like those before it, Warren’s new bill would require the state’s child care centers and public schools to test for lead and remediate it when found above the 15 parts per billion threshold. Warren said he plans to reintroduce the bill in February.

Only this time he plans to have a better analysis of the costs involved.

Warren believes his original bill died because of concerns about costs, who would pay and pressing unrelated issues facing the General Assembly in 2017. Before reintroducing the bill, he said, he plans to glean information from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Guilford County school systems, both of which tested their water in the past several years.

Warren said he hopes the results from those school systems will give lawmakers a better understanding of the money that would be needed should his bill pass.

Some districts taking action

In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, lead tests were voluntarily conducted in 2017 on more than 1,600 water fountains and fixtures at 58 of the system’s 176 schools.

The tests, targeting elementary and K-8 schools in old buildings, found 27 schools with unsafe lead levels, including one where the level at a sink in a school cafeteria measured 28 times higher than the 15 parts per billion threshold, according to The Charlotte Observer. The school system paid a consultant about $230,000 to conduct the tests. Additional tests are planned.

In Guilford County, voluntary testing found three schools with elevated lead levels. That school system is replacing fountains and faucets where lead is known to have been used and plans to test many more of its schools this year. Testing for 10 schools initially sampled cost $14,000, according to the Greensboro News & Record.

Warren said the new bill’s sponsors are wondering “can we project an average cost? Can we develop a grant program or funding? How does it work if we assist counties?

“I don’t think it will be all that much money when you get right down to it,” he said.

Warren could soon have additional ammunition to help him get his bill passed.

On Jan. 7, Gov. Roy Cooper’s office sent the EPA a notice of intent to participate in a federal grant program authorized by the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. The grant designates $20 million in funding to states. If approved, the state Department of Health and Human Services would be the grant recipient.

The lead debate

Despite a renewed push for legislation, a question remains as to how serious of a threat lead poses in schools’ drinking water.

While the EPA stresses that any lead exposure can be harmful, Dr. Michael Beuhler, medical director for the Carolinas Poison Center, counters that lead standards in water are based on an entire lifetime of consumption by vulnerable people, such as young children and pregnant women.

Students’ water intake at school each day is likely less than 1 percent of their total consumption of fluids, Beuhler said.

“Lead is part of our environment,” he said in an email. “We try to limit it, but it is there at very low levels. This water isn’t likely adding anything significant to their underlying exposure unless there is a very strange type exposure, like a child living in the school and consuming just the school water.”

Beuhler questioned whether legislation to test for lead “could be a veiled attempt to drive small schools/daycare out of business due to the cost of testing their water unless there was funding offered and the testing scheduling made sense. Or maybe a lab in N.C. that is going to make money hand over fist with more water samples being done?”

According to DHHS, about 150,000 children in North Carolina are tested for lead exposure every year. That includes nearly half of the state’s children between the ages of 1 and 2. The most common exposure is from lead paint.

A state report in 2014  — North Carolina Childhood Blood Lead Surveillance Data — illustrates the pervasiveness of lead in children in this state. The report, the most recent available, shows that 122,481 children between the ages of 1 and 2 were tested for lead exposure in 2012-13. Of those, 1,643 had blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter.

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Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com