The Marion County Public Health Department has released the results of a comprehensive survey of county schools, which showed that, before remediation, of the 297 facilities initially tested, 161 of them were in violation of Environmental Protection Agency standard for lead at the time.
The Report on Lead in School Drinking Water led by the MCPHD included extensive voluntary testing of thousands of water fountains and other potable water supplies within area schools, according to Curt Brantingham, media and public information coordinator.
There are currently no federal or state laws mandating regular testing of school drinking water for lead in Indiana.
Over the course of the testing, 8,842 water samples were taken, of which, 5.4 percent, or 475, were in violation of EPA lead standards at the time. After remediation, fixtures in all schools are in compliance with EPA standards at the time of testing, or have been taken out of service, according to Dr. Virginia A. Caine, MCPHD director.
“Testing sites included all areas where children had access, or one could reasonably assume a child could access,” stated Caine. “These areas included kitchen prep sinks, fountains, bathroom sinks in classrooms for younger children, clinics and teacher lounges if children were allowed to access them. Testing staff relied on school personnel to identify areas within the buildings that children had access. Out buildings, such as concession stands and athletic facilities, were included in testing sites.”
Of the school districts tested, private schools—including the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, charter schools, independent non-public schools, and Lutheran Schools of Indiana, among others—had the highest number of samples taken with 2,709, and number of affected facilities, with 109.
Indianapolis Public Schools came in second with 1,809 samples taken, and 62 of those coming back as testing for elevated levels of lead.
Affected schools completed a variety of corrective measures, including replacing water fountains, adding filters, and retesting the water lines and sources in question. Retesting of facilities once corrective measures were taken was also encouraged.
IPS, Speedway, and Wayne Township chose to retest with an outside source, rather than with the MCPHD. All schools have successfully passed all re-testing, with all locations and water sources either in compliance with EPA standards at the time of testing or taken out of service.
During the course of testing, EPA standards regarding lead changed from 20 parts per billion to “undefined.”
“The EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at 0 because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. Lead is persistent, and it can bioaccumulate in the body over time. A dose of lead that would have little effect on an adult can have a significant effect on a child. 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,” according to the EPA.
Lead primarily enters drinking water through corrosion of internal plumbing materials such as sinks, faucets, lead service lines, lead solder, brass fittings and fixtures, and galvanized steel pipes. The primary source for lead poisoning comes from within the home rather than in schools or child care facilities.
The MCPHD screens children for lead every year. In 2017, Marion County tested 10.5 percent, or 8,728, of Marion County children ages 0 to 5 years. Of those tested, 2.8 percent, or 246, had an elevated blood lead level. That was down slightly from 2016 when 10 percent, or 8,286, of children were tested showing 3 percent, or 251, had an elevated blood level.
Marion County is below the national average of children with elevated blood lead levels. Nationally in 2016, 10.4 percent of children ages 0 to 5 years were screened for lead, with 4 percent of those screened having elevated blood lead levels.
Caine stated the MCPHD will now turn its attention to testing of copper in school drinking water and corresponding remediation efforts.