By Greg Barnes
For years, bills have been introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly calling for the removal of lead from drinking water at public schools and licensed child care centers.
Each time, the bills failed to gain traction, largely because of money. Lawmakers worried about the costs of abatement and school districts feared the costs would fall on them.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 appears to have resolved that roadblock.
The plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law in March, allocates $5.7 billion to North Carolina to help the state overcome burdens caused or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In May, Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration unveiled a proposed budget for the American Rescue Plan funds that would allocate $160 million toward removing asbestos, lead paint and lead in drinking water from the state’s public schools and child care centers.
The state House and Senate followed with almost identical budget proposals for lead and asbestos abatement. Those budgets, which are pending approval, earmark $150 million toward the projects.
“We are thrilled to see this appropriation,” Tom Vitaglione, senior fellow for health and safety with NC Child, said in an email to NC Health News. “Public schools and child care centers operate on such thin budget margins. We know that lead is a legacy hazard in our older buildings, but like so many other infrastructure issues it’s very difficult to get the funding needed to clean it up.
“This is a huge one-time opportunity to get lead hazards out of the places where our children are learning and growing…This is another big step forward towards ending childhood lead poisoning in our state.”
Elevated lead exposure in children can damage their nervous systems and cause learning disabilities, stunted growth, hearing loss, low IQ, increased aggression, and impaired formation and function of blood cells. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says no level of lead exposure in children is safe.
Asbestos, a spray-on material for fireproofing, insulation, and soundproofing in schools from the 1940s through the 1970s, does not pose health risks unless it becomes friable and releases microscopic fibers into the air. When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they can cause chronic health problems to the lungs, throat, and gastrointestinal tract, including a rare and largely untreatable type of chest cancer called mesothelioma, according to Healthychildren.org.
Asbestos removal costly
The House and Senate budgets would allocate nearly $33 million to remove lead from tap water in the public schools and day care centers and about $117 million for removal of lead paint and asbestos..
According to the governor’s office, the allocation for asbestos removal was based on a review of state Division of Public Health data of school requests for asbestos abatement in 2019. The governor’s budget proposal for the American Rescue Plan money shows that about 770 schools have reported materials containing friable or damaged asbestos.
It could not be determined whether any, some or all of those schools have made efforts to remove the asbestos.
“It is possible that some of the listed schools have fully remediated the friable asbestos or are nearing completion of their plans,” said Kelly Haight Connor, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services.
The department provided a list of 781 – out of more than 2,500 traditional schools and about 200 charter schools in the state – that have ever reported friable or damaged asbestos.as determined by periodic inspections required under federal regulations. The department said “it is not a list of schools known to have current friable asbestos.”
Several agencies are involved in making sure children are safe from asbestos exposure in schools. Haight Connor said the federal Asbestos Hazard Management Response Act (AHERA) requires all public, charter and private schools to have an asbestos management plan in place.
“The purpose of the AHERA management plan is to identify where suspect asbestos is present, its condition, what preventative measures have been taken, and if any responsive action is needed,” Haight Connor said in an email.
The schools’ plans are submitted to DHHS’s Health Hazards Control Unit for review and approval, she said. Each school is also required to conduct an inspection every six months to confirm that materials containing asbestos remain in good condition. Any potential hazards are reported to the EPA, which retains enforcement authority and is responsible for determining the need for additional mitigation, Haight Connor said.
Every three years, the schools must have an accredited asbestos inspector or manager perform an AHERA reinspection to confirm the condition of identified asbestos and take action if needed.
Many schools are expected to upgrade their ventilation systems in the fight against COVID-19 infections. Those upgrades could disturb materials containing asbestos, which would have to be removed, said Mary Scott Winstead, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office.
Lead in schools’ drinking water
At this stage, little is known about which public schools have excessive lead in their drinking water, but the number is thought to be high. Schools built before 1986 are most at risk for having lead in their taps. That’s the year Congress banned the substance in pipes, fittings and faucets.
In 2019, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system tested for lead in water used for drinking and cooking at its schools. The testing found that 41 of 89 schools had taps exceeding the EPA’s lead limit of 15 parts per billion.
In July, Cooper signed legislation that puts an even lower cap on the state’s lead hazard threshold — 10 parts per billion.
Two years ago, a study by the Environment America Research & Policy Center and U.S. PIRG Education Fund gave North Carolina and 21 other states an “F” grade for failing to get lead out of their schools’ drinking water.
Child care centers already being tested
The budget proposals for lead and asbestos removal in schools and day care centers follow a rule from the state Commission for Public Health in 2019 that requires all of North Carolina’s licensed child care centers to be tested for lead in their tap water. The rule was championed by Vitaglione and Ed Norman, head of Children’s Environmental Health for DHHS.
Testing under the rule has been conducted by RTI International. Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, a researcher at RTI who heads up the testing, provided figures showing that 9 percent of about 4,000 centers tested to date had lead levels in at least one tap that exceeded the EPA’s 15 parts per billion threshold. Hoponick Redmon said about 400 centers remain to be tested. Afterward, she said, RTI will begin testing licensed family home child care centers.
Under the new rule, she said, RTI and state health officials can recommend ways for centers to mitigate high lead levels, but they cannot force them to take action. The state budget proposals would provide money for lead testing and removal.
“The big difference will be that it will cover mitigation costs, too, which is really fantastic,” she said.
Clean Water for Carolina Kids maintains a database where parents can see RTI’s test results for each center. To access the database, go to https://www.cleanwaterforcarolinakids.org/ and click on “view publicly reported data.”
Hoponick Redmon, a senior environmental health scientist and chemical risk assessment specialist with RTI, said the nonprofit research center will oversee the lead testing in the schools and the child care centers in partnership with the Division of Public Health.
Budgets earmark money for data tracking
According to the House and Senate budgets, part of the nearly $33 million earmarked for lead removal in the tap water at public schools and child care centers will be used to develop a statewide database containing the results of lead testing. The database is expected to allow for easier tracking and to determine the status of remediation efforts.
The bills would also establish a mechanism for providing funding to replace water lines, pipes and faucets or to install water filters at the affected schools or child care centers.
The bills would also establish a database for asbestos and lead paint removal for the schools and child care facilities and a mechanism for providing funding if an inspector or management planner determines that remedial action is required.
“We are delighted and grateful that the Governor, House, and Senate all included this appropriation in their budgets for ARP relief dollars,” Vitaglione, the senior fellow at NC Child, said in his email. “This is the result of many years of good work by our state health department and many agencies involved in ending childhood lead poisoning in North Carolina.”