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How Well Do States Keep Lead Out of School Drinking Water?

Last year, a government watchdog report found that about 13 million American children went to schools where officials discovered lead in their drinking water. Now, advocacy groups have graded states' school water policies.

An estimated 13 million American children went to schools where officials discovered (and tried to remove) lead in their drinking water in 2016 and 2017, as a government watchdog report previously found. Since then, how well have schools and states worked to protect kids from lead at school?

A new report, from the advocacy groups Environment America and U.S. PIRG Education Fund, scores 31 states' and Washington, D.C.'s policies and programs. Most states failed, the groups find, although some put in policies over just the past two years that the groups applaud, including plans to replace all lead water pipes (California) and requiring schools to take action at lower lead levels than are federally mandated (Washington, D.C.).

Children are thought to be especially vulnerable to lead's ill effects because their growing bodies absorb more of the metal than adults'. Even low doses of lead, about half of what the average American was exposed to in the era before unleaded gasoline was ubiquitous, have been shown to lower children's academic achievement and raise their risk of hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder. One 2014 study suggested that taking lead out of gasoline has contributed to gains of four to five IQ points among Americans since the 1970s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there's no safe level of lead for children. According to federal law, action must be taken in water systems where testing reveals lead concentrations greater than 15 parts per billion.

To calculate each state's score, Environment America considered factors including: Do schools have to test for lead in their water? Are states proactively replacing lead pipes and plumbing in schools, even before seeing their test results? What kind of test results mean that schools have to take steps, such as shutting down drinking fountains or installing filters? Environment America wants to see action at just one part per billion in school drinking fountains, which is what the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends. States do get partial credit for voluntary programs that have demonstrated success. For example, in Ohio, 45 percent of schools participate in a well-funded program to install filters or replace plumbing.

"Our kids deserve safe drinking water where they go every day to learn and play," Faye Park, president of U.S. PIRG Education Fund, said in a statement. "In light of these low marks, we join with doctors, parents and local officials from across the country to call for swift action to ensure lead-free water at schools and daycare centers. We must get the lead out now."