April 16, 2018
New safety measure helps Minnesota schools get a passing grade on tests for lead in drinking water
Law requires testing plans to be in place by July 1; results available to public
Is there lead in the drinking water at your child’s school? If so, how much and what is being done to manage, reduce or remove the lead? What is your school doing to prevent lead in its drinking water?
Those are questions the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) want schools to be able to answer for parents starting July 1, 2018. Legislation passed in 2017 requires public schools, including charter schools, to begin testing after July 1 for lead in their drinking water. The law also requires schools to make results available to parents and the public.
“Schools typically get their drinking water from well-regulated and well-run public water supplies, but there are times when lead can get into the water from plumbing fixtures or service lines,” Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm said. “That is why it is so important to test regularly in schools and in homes to understand and take action if lead is getting into the drinking water.”
Exposure to high levels of lead can damage the brain, nervous system, red blood cells and kidneys. Exposure to low levels of lead can cause lower IQ, hearing impairment, reduced attention span, hyperactivity, developmental delay and poor classroom performance. Children are particularly susceptible to lead exposure because their bodies absorb metals at higher rates. Children under six are at highest risk due to their rapid growth.
The two state agencies developed a model plan for how schools should accurately and efficiently test for lead. The new state law requires school districts and charter schools, by July 1, to adopt the model plan or create a plan of their own that follows state and federal guidelines. The state’s model testing plan is also a manual to guide schools on actions they can take to prevent and reduce lead in school drinking water. It can be found on the Reducing Lead in Drinking Water (PDF) on the MDH website.
In their plans, public school districts and charter schools must include a schedule for testing drinking water taps in each building at least once every five years and also complete testing of all buildings that serve students within five years from July 1, 2018. All taps used for food preparation and drinking should be tested.
While the testing requirement applies only to public and charter schools, health officials encourage child care centers and other facilities that serve infants, preschoolers, and other children to also use the guidance. Public health experts say there is no safe level of lead, so reducing a child’s potential exposures to lead from all sources is an important goal in protecting the health of children. While lead from sources in a child’s home, such as lead paint dust and chips from windows and walls, is still the most frequent cause of childhood lead exposures, it’s important to control other sources of lead exposure as much as possible. Among those potential sources is lead contamination in drinking water from pipes and fixtures in schools, where children spend many hours a day.
“We know that children at greatest risk of exposure to lead are often affected by other disparities,” said Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius. “It is our responsibility to ensure that when kids are in our care, they are safe. That includes ensuring the water they drink is safe. We took a big step forward last year in requiring the testing of lead in our schools’ water. Hopefully schools will take this a step further and fix it, and actively notify families of what measures are being taken to reduce lead hazards.”
The manual developed by MDH and MDE contains guidance to help schools find the best response option when lead is detected in a drinking water tap. Because individual school buildings vary widely across the state, final decisions on corrective actions should be driven by local school district staff. Actions that may be ideal in one district may not be appropriate for another district. The cost of sampling and analysis of water is an allowable expenditure by school districts. Funding is available as part of MDE’s Health and Safety Planning. Financial assistance is also available for lead hazard reduction efforts, but subject to documentation by MDH and MDE.
MDH has provided guidance to schools on testing and remediating for lead in their drinking water since 1988. While many schools were testing regularly, others were testing less frequently or not at all. The new law closes those gaps with the required plans and testing. The new law does not require schools to report their results to MDH, but schools are required to make results available to parents and the public. Parents can learn more about lead results in their school’s drinking water by contacting their school directly.
More information about lead in drinking water can be found on MDH’s Lead in Drinking Water page and more on lead hazards is on the lead home page.