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Why safe drinking water is no safe bet for some U.S. schools

It's not just Flint, Michigan. Over the past few decades, school districts in Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, Washington and elsewhere have found higher than acceptable lead levels in their students’ drinking water due to old plumbing systems. The NewsHour's April Brown reports on how schools in cities like Ithaca, New York, are confronting the crisis of lead contamination.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But first: worries over lead in the water in school districts around the country.

    The outcry over Flint, Michigan has brought a new spotlight to problems elsewhere. Communities are becoming more sensitive to the issue, but many schools are having a hard time dealing with something so complex and expensive.

    The NewsHour's April Brown reports for our weekly education series, Making the Grade.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Across the nation, there has been a lot of news coverage on a growing problem in many schools.

  • WOMAN:

    This afternoon, a Central Indiana school district is on high alert after unsafe levels of lead are discovered in its water.

  • WOMAN:

    Test results within Ithaca School District that show high amounts of lead in water sources.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    But none of this is new to second-grader Cyrus Schillenback, who knows a lot more about lead than most kids his age.

  • CYRUS SCHILLENBACK, Caroline Elementary School Student:

    It's very dangerous. And if you eat it, you will get poisonous — poisoned quite quick.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    And if you drink it?

  • CYRUS SCHILLENBACK:

    And if you drink it, it's the same.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Cyrus and his brother Cazimer (ph) attends Caroline Elementary, just outside Ithaca, New York. Their school was one of two in the area where high levels of lead were found in the water last August.

    But parents, including Cyrus' mom Rebecca, say it wasn't until January they were told their kids might have been exposed for months to a neurotoxin that is especially harmful to children.

  • REBECCA SCHILLENBACK, Cyrus’ Mother:

    We got a letter home. It was kind of cryptic. It said there has been elevated lead found, and we're sure you want to talk about this, basically, so come to this parent meeting, this informational parent meeting.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    That February meeting got heated at times.

  • WOMAN:

    My daughter's classroom had elevated lead levels. I got papers home, papers, not even the courtesy of a phone call.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    The district wouldn't make anyone available to speak with us, but administrator David Brown spoke at the community meeting.

  • DAVID BROWN, Ithaca City School District:

    We should have reported. We should have retested. We didn't. We waited for the county health department. That was in September. I can't go back to September. That is where we are right now.

  • WOMAN:

    Neither can we.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Caroline parent Melissa Hoffman felt the district should have taken action much sooner.

  • MELISSA HOFFMAN, Caroline Elementary School Parent:

    I was very alarmed. My heart was just exploding with fear for my child, for all the children, for the teacher, and I felt helpless.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Over the past few decades, districts in Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere have found higher-than-acceptable lead levels in school drinking water.

    That's cause for concern, according to Lynn Goldman, a former regulator with the Environmental Protection Agency and now dean of the George Washington University's School of Public Health.

  • DR. LYNN GOLDMAN, George Washington University:

    Lead is quite toxic to children, and especially when it comes to the development of their nervous system, the brain, but also the cardiovascular system.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    In fact, the EPA warns that exposure to even low levels of lead can cause low I.Q., hearing impairment, reduced attention span, and poor classroom performance.

    So, how does lead get into school drinking water? Many school buildings in the U.S. are old and were built when lead pipes, solder or fixtures were allowed to be used. When water is in contact with these materials for extended periods of time, over weekends and holidays, for example, the toxin can leach into it. Water can also become contaminated if small particles containing lead break off.

  • YANNA LAMBRINIDOU, Virginia Tech:

    This amount of water is expected to diagnose whether there is a lead and water problem associated with a specific tap.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Yanna Lambrinidou, who teaches at Virginia Tech and has studied lead in water nationally, says finding lead contamination can be tricky.

  • YANNA LAMBRINIDOU:

    The nature of the beast is that lead levels in water are unpredictable, and exposure is really like a Russian roulette. You might hit a very, very high lead in water sample, and then you might hit no lead in water for the rest of the samples you take.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    The EPA's Safe Drinking Water Act originally created in 1974 doesn't require all schools to perform regular water testing. Only schools and child care centers with their own water supplies, such as Wells, are required to do so.

    And Lynn Goldman says that and the fact no one agency is responsible for removing lead from school drinking water are big gaps in the regulatory system. And she says this is a national problem that we really don't yet know the scope of.

  • DR. LYNN GOLDMAN:

    Until fairly recently, lead was allowed in so many materials that wound up in the plumbing.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    And, according to the EPA, for schools that must test, the amount of lead allowed in their drinking water is higher than what's allowed in homes.

    But Yanna Lambrinidou says those levels were not chosen based on public health protection.

  • YANNA LAMBRINIDOU:

    The only level of lead in drinking water that is safe is zero. And, in fact, EPA's lead and cooper rule states very clearly that, when it comes to health and a health-based standard, zero is our number.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Last month, officials in Newark, New Jersey, began offering to test thousands of children and shut off water in more than half its 67 schools after finding lead levels exceeding the EPA's safety threshold.

    But the Newark teachers union believes some in the district may have known about the problem earlier, and shared an advisory from 2014 with instructions on how to reduce the risk of possible lead contamination. The districts told member station NJTV remedial actions are taken when elevated samples are detected.

    Newark Mayor Ras Baraka recently asked for the community's help to deal with the situation.

  • MAYOR RAS BARAKA, Newark:

    We need at least 2,000 to 3,000 people to bring us two cases of water apiece and drop them off at all of our community centers.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Using bottled water has been the solution for Baltimore City Public Schools for years.

    Do you guys know why you can't drink the water?

  • STUDENT:

    Because it's like — something wrong with it.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    That something wrong is lead contamination. In 2007, after years of lead testing and remediation, the district decided to shut off all drinking fountains and food preparation sinks in cafeterias and move to bottled water.

    It reportedly costs about $450,000 a year.

    Erika Brockman runs the Southwest Baltimore Charter School, which is housed in a Baltimore public school building. She says, in a district dealing with tough choices, she can understand not wanting to potentially spend millions of dollars on repairing and replacing lead pipes and fixtures in schools.

  • ERIKA BROCKMAN, Executive Director, Southwest Baltimore Charter School:

    Would the money that the district gets be better spent giving me a great teacher in my classroom or fixing the pipes in my building? In a short-term basis, I'm going to say, give me the teacher, any day, hands down.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    And for Rebecca Schillenback in Ithaca, lead is now one more thing she must add to her parental worry list.

  • REBECCA SCHILLENBACK:

    It was just something we were taking for granted. Wherever we got, we're going to have clean, safe water. And, of course, when we send our kids to school, it will be clean, safe water. You wouldn't even think about it. I wasn't thinking about it. So, this is a wakeup call.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm April Brown in Ithaca, New York.

    PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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