By Greg Barnes
Licensed child care centers in North Carolina will now have to test for lead in their tap water.
The N.C. Commission for Public Health has adopted a rule requiring the testing after research by Durham-based RTI International found that one in six taps for drinking or cooking water at the centers it tested exceeded federal standards for lead.
The rule took effect last Tuesday.
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.
An estimated 230,000 children attend nearly 4,600 licensed child care centers across North Carolina.
“This is a big win for young children in our state,” Vikki Crouse, health program associate at NC Child, said in a news release. “One of the simplest things we can do to promote children’s healthy brain development is to make sure their drinking water is free from lead.”
Crouse helped lead statewide advocacy for the new rule.
Lead at a glance
Lead at a glance
The rule will require licensed child care centers in the state to conduct lead tests on all taps used for drinking and food preparation every three years. Lead must be removed if it is found to exceed the federal standard of 15 parts per billion.
One year to test
Because no level of lead exposure is good for children, state officials urge that the centers take precautionary measures to remove lead whenever it is detected in their taps.
The child care centers will have a year to get their water tested. The testing will be free the first year because the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has secured a federal grant to cover the costs. Additional grant funding may become available in the future, according to the news release from NC Child and RTI International.
The release says low-cost ways centers can eliminate lead include:
- Replacing an old faucet with one that does not contain lead.
- Fixing clogged water pipes.
- Installing and maintaining a certified water filter on the tap. Water filters that are certified to remove lead carry an NSF/ANSI 53 seal.
- Installing and maintaining a water fountain or bottle filling station with a certified water filter.
RTI International, an independent nonprofit research organization, tested 86 child care centers in four Piedmont counties and found at least one tap at 16 percent of the buildings contained lead levels exceeding the federal standard. Ninety-seven percent of the buildings had detectable levels of lead.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires drinking water to contain less than 15 parts per billion of lead when it leaves municipal water treatment plants. But that regulation doesn’t govern the water when it enters homes or buildings, many of which have pipes or faucets containing lead joints. That lead often leaches into the tap water.
The EPA banned materials containing lead from plumbing in 1988, but many older structures still contain it. The EPA emphasizes that no level of lead in drinking water is safe, especially for young children.
Lawmakers’ efforts futile
State lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully for years to pass legislation that would require lead testing at all of the state’s licensed day cares and public schools. The latest bill, introduced in March by state Rep. Henry Warren (R-Salisbury), died in committee.
Two months before Warren’s bill was filed, Tom Vitaglione, a senior fellow at NC Child, said he was not optimistic that the bill would survive.
Speaking at a conference in January, Vitaglione and Ed Norman, head of Children’s Environmental Health with the state Department of Health and Human Services, said they would ask the N.C. Commission for Public Health to approve a rule governing lead in water at licensed child care centers.
“We are delighted,” Vitaglione said Wednesday about the rule’s approval. “It was a long haul. We feel good that the kids are going to be protected.”
Vitaglione said he was also pleased that the NC Licensed Child Care Association supported the rule and was instrumental in helping get it approved.
Kevin Campbell, president of the association, couldn’t be reached for comment last week. In January, Campbell said the association supported the rule but thought it should pertain only to centers built before 1988, when the federal lead ban took effect.
Campbell said he also worried about costs for lead abatement and the potential harm to the reputation of centers where excessive lead is found, even if it is quickly removed.
Vitaglione said about 1,200 of the 4,600 licensed child care centers in the state are in public schools, typically as pre-K or Head Start programs. While those programs will have to adhere to the new rule, it doesn’t extend to the tap water throughout the schools where they are housed.
However, Vitaglione said, one benefit is that many of those programs use their schools’ cafeterias, which will have to abide by the rule.
Vitaglione said the groups that sought the rule for child care centers — and not public schools — did so because the young ages of the children created the greatest need. He said he hopes the new rule will start a groundswell of support to extend it to public schools.
“The best way to get things done is for the communities to rise up and say ‘We want to get this done,’ ” Vitaglione said.
Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic contributed research and analysis to develop the new rule.