Politics & Government

NC gets an ‘F’ grade for keeping lead out of school drinking water, new report finds

North Carolina is failing to protect children from drinking lead-contaminated water in schools, advocacy groups warn, prompting state lawmakers to push for testing at public schools and childcare facilities.

North Carolina was among 22 states that got an “F” grade for not getting rid of lead from school drinking water, according to a new study released Thursday by Environment America Research & Policy Center and U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Advocates and lawmakers said Thursday that the state needs to act now to protect the health of North Carolina’s children.

“North Carolina is receiving an F — a failing grade when it comes to protecting our children at their schools,” Drew Ball, state director of Environment North Carolina, the local affiliate of Environment America, said at a news conference at the legislative building.

The new report comes the same week that a bipartisan bill was introduced in the state House to require public schools and childcare facilities not in private residences to test the lead levels in their drinking water. House Bill 386 also provides $8 million in state funds to help pay for the cost of testing the water and repairing or replacing water systems.

The bill’s primary sponsors are Reps. Harry Warren, a Rowan County Republican; Holly Grange, a New Hanover County Republican; Stephen Ross, an Alamance County Republican; and Brian Turner, a Buncombe County Democrat.

“It’s unfortunate that in 2019 we need to still be addressing lead toxicity for our children in schools,” Grange said. “Safe drinking water must remain a priority for all of us in North Carolina.”

The bill comes amid ongoing concerns about the dangers of drinking lead-laden water. Lead is toxic for everyone, but especially damaging to young children.

“Lead is a very long-known neurotoxin in children,” said Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, a professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering. “It impairs their cognitive development and decreases IQ, and that’s a permanent effect.

“It can also lead to adverse outcomes like increased rate of juvenile delinquency and poor performance in school, so there’s a great cost benefit to reducing children’s exposure to lead.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency encourages but does not require public schools to test water for lead.

Some North Carolina school districts have already dealt with concerns about lead levels in their drinking water.

The report highlights Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ announcement last summer that unacceptably high lead levels were found in dozens of school water fountains and sinks.

CMS initially reported high lead levels at 27 of the 58 schools tested, and said the problematic fixtures had been fixed, removed or placed out of service. Combined with a later, second round of testing, the district overall found unsafe lead levels at 41 of the 89 schools tested.

But parents were angry that, while CMS had alerted them to the initial testing in fall 2017, the district didn’t reveal the results until reporters asked questions the following summer. CMS defended that decision, saying the tests were voluntary and revealed no likely health hazards.

The Guilford County school system took five school faucets or drinking fountains out of service after testing the water for lead levels, the Greensboro News & Record reported in January.

Roxie Cash, a Wake County school board member, said she hasn’t seen any indication of elevated levels of lead in any schools in the district. But Cash said she supports the bill “out of an abundance of caution.”

“I don’t believe that I have to tell anybody in this room that schools have very tight budgets,” Cash said. “In order to adequately test and address any lead found in school drinking water, we will need additional funding from this General Assembly.”

Unsafe lead levels have also been found at a number of childcare centers.

Sixteen percent of the 86 childcare centers in Wake, Durham, Orange and Guilford counties tested by RTI International found high levels of lead in the drinking water.

Similar bills have been introduced in the past but haven’t been acted on. Warren, the lawmaker, said he believes that the current bill is less onerous in its requirements.

The bill would require testing of schools and childcare centers built or substantially renovated on or before Dec. 31, 1990. But Warren said he expects that date to be expanded to include requiring testing of sites built or substantially renovated before 2014, when federal rules required reduction in the level of lead used in faucets and pipes.

”There are schools out there across our state that are old,” said Turner, the lawmaker. “In fact the schools that my mom and dad went to in Buncombe County are still active and being used.

“It is critical at this time that we look to make sure those schools are safe.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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