How Lead Enters School Drinking Water—and How to Stop It

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Areas all across the country are still showing concerns about whether there’s lead in their drinking water. It makes total sense. New findings of lead in tap water have many families wondering if their children are at risk of being exposed. Not just at home, but at school too.

While we can take measures to protect our own drinking water with in-home filtration systems, it can be confusing to know for certain whether the water at schools contains lead. Once you know the facts on lead, you’ll be better prepared for action. The EPA has outlined some short- and long-term options for sites that have tested positive for lead.

How Lead Gets into Drinking Water

First things first: Lead tends to enter drinking water supplies because the pipes—and sometimes the faucets or fixtures—contain lead. It’s not that the lead was always in the water, rather, the water picks up the lead as it travels through the city’s pipes or a building’s plumbing.

When water has a high acidity level, it’s more likely to corrode those lead-containing fixtures or pipes. And when lead corrosion happens, the lead has a chance to leach into the water. This is even more likely to occur when the water is hot. So it’s not good if hot and/or acidic water happens to stay around lead for an extended period of time. Odds are, it’s going to break down those plumbing materials and let lead mix with the water.

Regulations for Lead

We’ve known for many years now that exposure to lead can cause serious health problems for children. That’s why a 1986 amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act banned the use of lead materials in plumbing. Unfortunately, homes and buildings built before 1986 might have lead pipes or fixtures, or lead solder for their plumbing. That’s why they present more of a problem.

The leaded materials ban has helped these past 30 years, but completely removing lead from water is still a “non-enforceable health goal” for the EPA. Because the lead tends to enter public water supplies through the pipes, the treatment centers can’t control what happens when the water leaves their facility. Thus, lead falls into the category of regulations known as maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs).

Although the goal level for lead is zero, the treatment plants can’t be entirely responsible for eliminating lead from our tap water.

The local treatment plants’ goal for lead is to confirm that the water won’t be a corrosive agent in the plumbing systems. They work to prevent any chance of having acidic water, which reduces the likelihood that lead will leach into our water as it travels. If water isn’t acidic when it leaves the plant, they’ve done their part to keep the lead goal to zero. But even with these water safety regulations, it’s important to note that all school buildings and homes (yes, newer ones too) can still be at risk.

Testing for Lead in Schools

The only way to know whether lead is present in your tap water is to have it tested. Lead is tasteless and odorless. Just because water looks clear and tastes and smells okay, it doesn’t mean it’s free of any contaminants. Testing the water in schools is of vital importance because there are many sinks and water fountains that might not be used as often as we’d think. And the longer water sits in pipes, there’s more time lead can leach, as shown in Goshen, Indiana recently.

Only one drinking water out of 251 showed signs of lead in their school system. But about 13 percent of their faucets (not designated for drinking water) had elevated lead levels. Those taps weren’t for drinking, but there’s still a chance that the water could put kids at risk. Reports say the Indiana schools will be taking better precautions to keep the faucets regularly flushed, and that they’ll continue to replace and retest their water for lead as needed.

Safe Drinking Water Solutions

For schools and other community buildings that want to test their water, the EPA outlines some key steps on their Testing Drinking Water webpage. (They also have a detailed 104-page document about testing, treating, and reporting information on lead levels in school water.) In these reports, the EPA suggests short-term procedures and permanent solutions if lead is detected, including pipe flushing and pipe replacement. They also recommend installing point-of-use filters to permanently control lead at taps.

At Indy Soft Water, we’re big fans of point-of-use filtration. We love helping schools, businesses, and other commercial buildings filter their drinking water right at the tap. Certain coolers can hook up right to your main water line and filter the water, so it’s as safe as possible for drinking. Systems that use reverse osmosis (RO) filtration can take care of lead before water leaves the cooler’s tap. In our opinion, point-of-use filters offer the safest solutions for drinking water. They’re great for homes, and awesome for public use too.

If you’re unsure about your school’s water quality, talk with school administration to find testing options for your area. You’ll be better equipped to find a permanent solution for clean water when you know more about the possible contaminant issues. In the meantime, you can always encourage your family to carry their own reusable water bottle with them—especially if you have your own RO system at home. Knowing that you always have access to lead-free, filtered water at home can be a great comfort. We all deserve to stay hydrated in a healthy way!

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