Processing Magazine

School drinking water contains toxins

September 29, 2009
Over the last decade, the drinking water at thousands of schools across the country has been found to contain unsafe levels of lead, pesticides and dozens of other toxins. An Associated Press investigation found that contaminants have surfaced at public and private schools in all 50 states - in small towns and inner cities alike. But the problem has gone largely unmonitored by the federal government, even as the number of water safety violations has multiplied. The contamination is most apparent at schools with wells, which represent 8 to 11 percent of the nation''s schools. Roughly one of every five schools with its own water supply violated the Safe Drinking Water Act in the past decade, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency analyzed by the AP. Experts and children''s advocates complain that responsibility for drinking water is spread among too many local, state and federal agencies, and that risks are going unreported. Finding a solution, they say, would require a costly new national strategy for monitoring water in schools. Schools with unsafe water represent only a small percentage of the nation''s 132,500 schools. And the EPA says the number of violations spiked over the last decade largely because the government has gradually adopted stricter standards for contaminants such as arsenic and some disinfectants. Many of the same toxins could also be found in water at homes, offices and businesses. But the contaminants are especially dangerous to children, who drink more water per pound than adults and are more vulnerable to the effects of many hazardous substances. Still, the EPA does not have the authority to require testing for all schools and can only provide guidance on environmental practices. Since 2004, the agency has been asking states to increase lead monitoring. As of 2006, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found nearly half of all schools nationwide do not test their water for lead. Because contaminant levels in water can vary from drinking fountain to drinking fountain, and different children drink different amounts of water, epidemiologists often have trouble measuring the potential threats to children''s health. But children have suffered health problems attributed to school water: Many school officials say buying bottled water is less expensive than fixing old pipes. Baltimore, for instance, has spent more than $2.5 million on bottled water over the last six years.