Members of the joint House education committees will hear testimony Wednesday about the issue of lead in school drinking water.
That follows an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation that showed children in Metro Nashville Public Schools still being exposed to high amounts of lead – despite efforts by the district to test for the potent neurotoxin and to remove the water fountains with the highest levels.
Here are five things you need to know about the issue (with supporting links):
1. Lead is a highly toxic metal that can be especially harmful to children and pregnant women.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead." The EPA notes that, "in children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells." The American Academy of Pediatrics says lead has also been linked to "behavioral problems in children, including inattention, impulsivity, aggression, and hyperactivity." In pregnant women, the EPA says, "lead can also cross the placental barrier exposing the fetus the lead. This can result in serious effects to the mother and her developing fetus," including reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth.
2. There is NO safe level of lead.
Metro Schools officials point to an "action level" of 15 parts per billion for lead set by the EPA for public drinking water systems. But a closer look at the EPA website reveals this statement: "EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that there is no known safe level of lead in a child's blood."
3. The nation's pediatricians recommend tougher standards for school drinking water.
In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended new regulations to ensure water fountains in schools do not exceed water lead concentrations of more than 1 part per billion. “We now know that there is no safe level of blood lead concentration for children, and the best ‘treatment’ for lead poisoning is to prevent any exposure before it happens,” said Dr. Jennifer Lowry, MD, chair of the AAP Council on Environmental Health and an author of the policy statement. "Most existing lead standards fail to protect children. They provide only an illusion of safety. Instead we need to expand the funding and technical guidance for local and state governments to remove lead hazards from children's homes, and we need federal standards that will truly protect children."
4. Lead can be difficult to detect in water.
According to the group Environment America, "tests — even when properly done — can fail to capture lead exposure. Part of this conundrum is that corrosion and breaking off of lead particles from pipes is highly variable. Multiple water tests from one tap can result in highly variable lead levels between samples." Flushing the water lines before taking a sample for lead testing "can artificially lower lead levels in test samples because it removes the water which was sitting stagnant in lead service lines or other lead-laden plumbing, and this extended period of time is when lead typically leaches into the water." The EPA no longer recommends that practice.
5. There is no state law requiring testing for lead in school drinking water.
While the EPA "strongly recommends" testing, Metro Nashville Public Schools went beyond federal and state requirements when it first began testing for lead in the summer of 2016. Legislation previously introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly would have required periodic, random testing of school water supplies. Another bill would have required regular flushing of school water lines to minimize the chance of lead building up in the pipes. A survey of Middle Tennessee school districts by NewsChannel 5 Investigates found that Williamson, Wilson, Rutherford, Robertson, Cheatham, Maury and Montgomery County Schools had not tested for lead in the last three years. Only Sumner County said it had conducted testing, and the Franklin Special School District was planning such a program.
NC5 Investigates: Lead in School Water