A multi-agency government effort has succeeded in reducing lead levels in schools, officials say

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A government program created under the 2019 law has resulted in nearly all Vermont schools and child care programs taking lead in their drinking water. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

State officials announced this week that nearly all Vermont schools and childcare programs have taken up lead in their drinking water systems thanks to a government program created and funded under the 2019 law. As a result, students’ exposure to lead has decreased.

Law 66 required schools and childcare facilities to test drinking water systems for contamination, including all taps used for drinking or cooking. Schools had to replace fittings or pipes to reduce lead levels when tests determined concentrations above the state’s “working level” of 4 parts per billion.

According to a progress report released this month, 98% of schools have completed these replacements, leading state officials to declare the program a success. As of February 2022, the majority of faucets tested had lead concentrations of less than one part per billion.

Test results are publicly available on a searchable online database.

According to the report, there is no safe level of lead in the body. Exposure is particularly harmful to children, and it can slow or impair growth and cause learning and behavior problems.

“Every year hundreds of Vermont children are poisoned by lead,” Vermont Department of Health Commissioner Mark Levine said in a statement. This program shows how we can work together as a country to reduce lead exposure and keep our children healthy. Parents and caregivers can take comfort in knowing that the water their children consume at school and that childcare is now safer.”

From June 2019 through December 2021, schools and state officials tested more than 15,000 faucets, according to the report. Of those, one in five was levels above the state level.

75% of schools and 14% of non-school childcare facilities found lead in at least one faucet, and 21% of all faucets needed replacing, according to the report. The highest concentration of lead identified was 25,000 parts per billion.

Until the implementation of the new law, the district had tested public water supplies for lead, but not individual taps, said Joel Fitzgerald, director of facilities and land for the Mount Abraham Unified School District. For example, Mount Abraham Union High School receives municipal water, so school officials will take their test sample from the main water source.

“Everyone’s well was tested,” he said, “and everything looked fine.” “But then, once the water goes through the fixtures and sits all night in the drinking fountains, that’s where you get high scores — the fixtures themselves.”

According to the report, most repairs were “easy,” requiring merely replacing fixtures, rather than more complex plumbing modifications. Up to 90% of fixtures that must be replaced cost less than $500.

State officials sent test kits to schools, and school officials sent samples back for testing. Government funding helped cover the cost of replacing taps, such as basin faucets, water fountains, and bottle fillers. Schools also installed filters for some faucets, or completely disconnected the fixtures from work.

The Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Children and Families participated in the effort, along with the Ministry of Health.

Despite some shortages in labor and supplies, Fitzgerald said the process in Mount Abraham area schools was smooth — and necessary, given that the high school and Bristol Primary School had a number of taps tested above state. Unlike other schools in the area, these two schools have not been renovated recently.

When the law was passed, Fitzgerald was concerned that the state would not provide the school with enough support to get the job done well.

“I think the state is getting famous for this,” he said. “They did a good job.”

The district has since invested in more water bottle fillers, which were the kind of fixtures that statewide testing found the least amount of lead contamination.

Fitzgerald pointed out the carcinogenic PCBs found at Burlington High School, where he was principal for nine years. The pollution eventually prompted the school to relocate.

“We’re always worried,” he said, “but we’re always trying to do the best job possible.” “You try to keep your kids as safe as possible every day… It’s not always easy.”

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