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Thirteen Million American Kids Went to Schools Last Year Where Officials Found Elevated Levels of Lead in the Drinking Water

An additional 18 million kids attended schools where officials didn't test the drinking water for lead, or where officials didn't know whether they had tested.
Placards posted above water fountains warn against drinking the water at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, on May 4th, 2016.

Placards posted above water fountains warn against drinking the water at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Michigan, on May 4th, 2016.

An estimated 13 million children in the United States went to schools where officials had found—and tried to fix—elevated levels of lead in school drinking fountains and kitchen taps last year, according to a government watchdog report published Tuesday. An additional 12 million children went to schools where officials did not test for lead in the drinking water between 2016 and 2017, and six million went to schools where officials didn't know whether they had tested for lead.

At all the schools where officials reported to the Government Accountability Office that they had found lead in the water, officials also said they took steps to remedy the problem, such as replacing water fountains, taking out water fountains, or flushing the water system.

Lead is especially harmful to children because their bodies tend to absorb more of it than adults'. At the average blood level of American children in 1979—a few years after unleaded gasoline was introduced in the U.S., but before it was ubiquitous—lead has been shown to damage children's growth, hearing, and IQ. High doses of lead can cause anemia, kidney failure, brain damage, and death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says no safe level of lead exposure for children has been identified.

School drinking water systems are especially vulnerable to lead contamination, says the report, which the Government Accountability Office created at the request of several Democratic members of Congress. That's because schools are often unoccupied during breaks, and the longer water stands in pipes that contain lead or lead soldering, the more likely it is that the harmful metal will enter the water. There's no federal law that says schools must test their water for lead, but Government Accountability Office researchers found that, as of September of 2017, at least eight states required their schools to perform testing. At least 13 states didn't mandate testing, but give schools money or other resources to run analyses.

As a result of their survey of schools, Government Accountability Office researchers had several recommendations for the federal government. They suggested the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Water promote water testing to schools, and that the Department of Education make water-testing resources easy to find on its website. "This report should serve as a wake-up call to the Trump Administration that it must take immediate action to address lead in drinking water," members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce said in a statement. "The Administration should finalize a stronger Lead and Copper Rule and issue protective guidance requiring lead testing for all public schools."