By Greg Barnes
Jennifer Hoponick Redmon worried about lead in drinking water as she sought a new childcare center for her children in the Raleigh area.
Hoponick Redmon knows all about the dangers of lead. She’s an expert in environmental health science and chemical risk assessment for RTI International, a nonprofit research institute in Research Triangle Park.
Hoponick Redmon knows that 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.
Hoponick Redmon said she explored several childcare centers, eventually settling on one that she thought had the brightest teachers and offered the best curriculum and care. But she worried about one thing. The center is housed in an old building, where lead in faucets and plumbing can often be 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 often leaches into drinking water.
Hoponick Redmon said she asked the owners of the childcare center if they had ever had their water tested for lead. The owners thought they had, handing Hoponick Redmon a copy of their latest test results, which showed no presence of potentially harmful bacteria or other contaminants.
But the test did not sample for lead.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets an action level of 15 parts per billion of lead for public water suppliers, requiring them to notify customers when that level is exceeded and to take action to get the measurement back below the threshold.
But once the water leaves public pipes in this state, there is no law to guarantee that children are not drinking harmful levels of lead; no law to make schools and child care centers test for lead; no law requiring parents or legal guardians to be notified if high lead levels are found.
Activist seeks new rule
Lawmakers have tried to pass legislation that would require testing in all of the state’s childcare centers and public schools and remove it if found at levels above the 15 parts per billion threshold. Only eight states now have such a law.
State Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican from Salisbury, said he plans to reintroduce another, more comprehensive bill, in February.
But Tom Vitaglione, a senior fellow at the nonprofit NC Child in Raleigh, isn’t optimistic that a new bill will have any more success than the other two.
Vitaglione has a different strategy. Partnering with Ed Norman, head of Children’s Environmental Health with the state Department of Health and Human Services, Vitaglione said he plans to appear before the N.C. Commission for Public Health on Feb. 6 to seek a new rule pertaining only to the state’s 4,496 licensed childcare centers.
Speaking at the annual North Carolina Public Health Leaders’ Conference last week, Norman said he and Vitaglione will propose that the commission adopt a rule that would require the childcare centers to be tested for lead every three years.
Where high concentrations of lead are found, Norman said, center owners will be required to provide free, clean water until the lead has been lowered to acceptable levels. They will also be required to notify parents or legal guardians.
Study finds lead in daycares
Hoponick Redmon’s experience trying to find a suitable childcare center for her children left her with a brainstorm. Why not find funding to conduct a study on lead levels in the state’s schools and child care programs?
In 2017, she and others at RTI launched the Clean Water for Carolina Kids study.
They sought 100 daycares and public schools to volunteer to have their drinking water tested for lead. The researchers ended up testing 86 buildings, all but one of them a child care center, Pre-K or Head Start program.
The buildings tested are in Durham, Wake, Guilford and Orange counties. Hoponick Redmon said about half of the buildings were constructed before 1988, when the law took effect banning lead in new plumbing.
Preliminary results show that only 1.3 percent of the 1,284 samples taken at the 86 buildings tested above 15 parts per billion for lead, the action level set by the EPA for public water utilities.
But the results also show that 16 percent of the schools and childcare centers tested had at least one sample that measured above the 15 parts per billion threshold, and all but 3 percent of buildings had detectable levels of lead.
The EPA emphasizes that there is no safe level of lead exposure. Its maximum contaminant level goal 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.
Regardless, North Carolina and other states consider the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion the standard for water used for cooking and drinking in schools and child care centers.
Hoponick Redmon said the school and the child care centers that agreed to take part in RTI’s study were notified of the test results and were provided recommendations on how to lower their lead levels.
Often, she said, remediation can be as simple as flushing the water pipes each morning. Other fixes include adding and maintaining relatively inexpensive water filters that are certified to remove lead, or removing faucets and other fixtures that contain the heavy metal. At a minimum, centers were told they could place signs on faucets notifying people to use the water only for washing hands.
Because the child care centers and the school volunteered to be in the study, Hoponick Redmon said, there was no requirement for them to reduce their lead levels. RTI didn’t check to see whether they had, she said, because it wasn’t in the study’s parameters.
But Hoponick Redmon said many of the childcare centers she did hear back from had taken measures to remove the lead, including the center where she put her own children. Some of the centers removed fixtures or old plumbing, she said. Others, including hers, added filters.
Daycares won’t be overburdened
Vitaglione said it will probably take the Commission for Public Health about six months to decide whether to approve the proposed rule requiring child care centers to be tested for lead in their water and to remove it when levels are found to be too high.
If approved, Vitaglione and Norman said they hope to partner with RTI to help conduct the testing. For its study, the institute had the centers’ owners draw the water samples, which were then sent to RTI for testing. The method resulted in lowering the cost of testing to about $15 per sample, Vitaglione said. That equates to less than $20,000 to test all 1,284 samples.
The cost was substantially less than the $230,000 the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system paid a consultant to take about 1,600 samples at 58 schools to test for lead. Last year, those test results revealed that 27 of the 58 schools had high lead levels in at least one source of tap water.
Norman said he doesn’t think the centers will be overburdened by having to test and remove lead from water. Typically, he said, a child care center has about five water sources used for cooking or drinking, compared with dozens for schools.
The RTI study showed that, for the most part, tap water was found to contain high lead levels in only one source at the centers and that the lead can often be removed through a filter costing roughly $150, Norman said.
Kevin Campbell, president of the North Carolina Licensed Child Care Association, said the association supports the proposed rule.
“We want our water to be safe so we do support it,” said Campbell, who owns child care centers in Charlotte and elsewhere.
But Campbell said the association is concerned about price, who will pay and the perception of inadequate state government preparation and resources. Under the proposed rule, all daycares would have to be tested within 12 months from the time the rule takes effect. Campbell said the association thinks testing should be required only for child care centers built before 1989, when the federal lead ban took effect.
Campbell said some centers “operate on a shoestring budget.”
He said the association also worries about the potential that a child care center’s reputation could be damaged if high lead levels are found, even if the problems are quickly resolved.
Norman and Vitaglione think that at least some of Campbell’s financial concerns will be over soon.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to award $20 million in grant funding to states that want to test schools and daycares for lead in their water. Gov. Roy Cooper’s office sent a letter on Jan. 7 giving notice of intent to participate in the grant program, authorized by the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act.
Norman estimated that the grant could mean $1 million or more for North Carolina, enough, he said, to test all of the state’s licensed daycares.
“We are just so lucky that we are in a good spot to do this,” Vitaglione said at the conference.
Vitaglione has another objective in his fight to get lead out of drinking water. He said he will soon ask state lawmakers to lower the level for enforcement on public utilities below the 15 parts per billion currently used by the EPA.
The EPA stresses that any level of lead in drinking water can be harmful. What’s more, the federal Lead and Copper Rule of 1991 now only requires water systems to lower lead levels if more than 10 percent of tap water samples exceed the action level.
“Everybody agrees that 15 is much too high in this day and age,” Vitaglione said. “That was set a long time ago.”