Testing school water for lead is wise move

March 5, 2020 1:00 AM

We’re of the mindset that when it comes to our children, every precaution should be taken to protect their health and wellbeing. The state of Montana has now mandated public schools across Montana to test drinking water for lead, and that is welcome news.

In response to state rule changes adopted by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services in January, schools have a December 2021 deadline to test all fixtures that may “reasonably provide water for human consumption or for food preparation,” such as drinking fountains, water bottle refill stations and sinks. Other rule revisions addressed indoor and outdoor air quality to help schools plan if air quality deteriorates.

The state rules hadn’t been updated since 1986, the year the federal Safe Drinking Water Act was amended, so clearly it was high time to revisit lead testing. State officials wisely are encouraging elementary schools to start testing first because young, developing children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure.

Testing for the presence of lead seems especially important, given the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assertion that “no safe blood lead level in children has been identified,” and even a “low level” of lead in a child’s blood could lead to behavior, learning, IQ, growth, hearing and hyperactivity issues.

There are lingering questions about how the costs of this mandated testing will be covered. An EPA grant is paying for the first round of testing, but it’s somewhat unclear what other resources may be tapped to help school districts cover the cost. The state needs to nail down these potential funding partners sooner rather than later.

Testing drinking water for lead was previously voluntary for Montana schools that receive water from regulated public water systems, but as Inter Lake education reporter Hilary Matheson noted in a March 1 report, that’s still not an adequate assessment of lead in school buildings with aging infrastructure and plumbing systems. State officials have pointed out the presence of lead in drinking water is primarily an internal plumbing issue. What testing a municipal drinking supply shows is how corrosive water is, which can change over time. If water is corrosive and it sits in plumbing with lead solder, for example, lead may leach into the water.

That in itself makes the state’s mandated testing a prudent move.