The possibility that lead in school drinking water is derailing the development of my children’s brains shouldn’t be something I have to worry about. But it is.
Vermont, like many other states, carries the toxic legacy of lead’s use in plumbing infrastructure. Drinking water that is otherwise safe can accumulate lead from lead-containing pipes, valves and fixtures as it flows through. Consumption of lead, a potent neurotoxin, can lead to serious and irreversible cognitive and developmental deficits, including a drop in IQ. These risks are especially pronounced for children. Up to 20% of ADHD cases may be attributable to lead exposure.
As a parent, and with the tragic case of Flint, Michigan, on my mind, I worry about lead. As a chemist, I channeled this worry into a research question and spent the last couple of years testing school drinking water in Addison County for lead. I was pleased to find that many sinks and water fountains — and nearly some entire schools — deliver perfectly safe water to its students and staff. I learned that safe drinking water in our schools is not uncommon and that safe water is an achievable goal.
But I also found that roughly 50% of all drinking water outlets district-wide (and up to 75% of outlets in one school) exceed the 1 part-per-billion (ppb) safety level recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Vermont’s own Department of Health. My findings comport with a recent state-policy assessment that earned Vermont an F for its policies (mostly a lack thereof) regarding lead in school drinking water.
Lawmakers this session are considering S.40, a bill that would require and help fund the testing and remediation of lead in drinking water in Vermont schools. Any law would improve matters, but critical details of S.40 currently under debate will determine which of Vermont’s children are protected from lead exposure and to what degree. Even the most stringent version of S.40 under consideration would only earn the state a C grade. Our children deserve better.
I urge lawmakers to:
Require all outlets in schools and in childcare facilities to be tested regularly using the protocols established for schools by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Accept the public health consensus and establish a health-protective 1-ppb action level for lead.
Provide sufficient funding to ensure that the health of all Vermont children is protected.
A 1-ppb action level is crucial. Higher action levels for lead will promote existing health inequities across Vermont. Resource-rich schools will have the means to deliver safe water without state assistance, leaving children at other schools with no choice but to accept unsafe levels of lead in their water.
The established harms of children’s exposure to lead are irreversible and alarming. Thankfully, they are also entirely preventable. I urge Vermont’s lawmakers to do right by our kids and pass a strengthened S.40.
Molly Robinson is a resident of Middlebury, mother of two teens, and a professor of Environmental Chemistry at Middlebury College. Lead results for Addison County Central District school water can be found at http://sites.middlebury.edu/mcostanz/research/lead/