Water testing for lead in schools and municipalities have made national and local headlines in the past couple years. In January 2017, Public Act 099-0922 was passed, requiring that by the year’s end (Dec. 2017) Illinois school districts complete water testing in all District sites built before Jan. 1, 1987. In U-46, 37 buildings met that criteria and were tested. A second phase requires testing in all buildings built between Jan. 2, 1987 and Jan. 1, 2000. Phase two must be completed by Dec. 31, 2018. The Illinois law only applies to buildings where pre-K through fifth grade students attend school.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) sets what’s called an “action level” for lead in water at 15 parts per billion (ppb), however, the Illinois law establishes more stringent guidelines, requiring districts to take action and notify parents if lead is found in water when levels are at or above 5 ppb. Please note that neither the 15 ppb, nor the state’s threshold is a health-based standard. Both the EPA and state levels were set to trigger systems to take action and mitigate the levels of lead but are not accompanied by any requirements regarding medical tests or healthcare.
School District U-46 complied with the new Illinois law and contracted with Carnow, Conibear & Assoc., Ltd, an environmental health company, to undertake the first phase of testing. As noted, thirty seven sites were identified as meeting the criteria for testing under Public Act 099-0922 and can be summarized as follows:
- 27 elementary schools
- Seven preschool programs, five of which are located in the District’s high schools
- The U-46 Observatory/Planetarium, Center House and the DREAM Academy located in the U-46 Educational Services Center in Elgin
Carnow, Conibear & Assoc., Ltd collected more than 3,000 water samples between May 22 and May 25, 2017 from the 37 sites.
A summary of the results, by site, can be found below:
The District will follow, and in many cases, go above and beyond the Illinois Department of Public Health’s guidelines to address the results. The District has and will continue to take the following action:
- All in-classroom drinking fountains in elementary schools, not just in the schools that were tested, will be shut off by August 16, 2017, the first day of the new school year.
- Drinking fountains outside classrooms will be updated with a filter, a measure that goes beyond the IDPH guidelines. These new filtered fountain systems will first be installed this summer and fall in the hallways beginning with those sites that tested above the IDPH guidelines.
- All sinks in bathrooms, nurses’ offices, kitchenettes, cafeterias, labs, maker spaces and any other locations will be labeled with a bilingual sign reading “Hand Washing Only,’’ upon the start of the school year.
- Additionally, according to the U.S. EPA, washing hands, and even bathing or showering, should be safe for children and adults, even if the water contains lead over the U.S. EPA’s action level. Human skin does not absorb lead in water.
- During the past three years, U-46 has installed 131 water bottle filtration stations or retrofit filters across the District to deliver fresh water to students and faculty and reduce the amount of plastic bottle waste going into landfills. We will continue to install these water stations throughout the summer the 2017-18 school year in a fair and equitable manner, starting with the most recently tested sites.
- Finally, where necessary, beginning August 16, we will provide bottled water at any sites that do not meet the state’s newly developed drinking water requirements.
Notification to Families
School District U-46 sent letters via our mass notification system on July 6, 2017 to parents with children at sites where samples exceeded 5 ppb. The letters included the sample results and the District’s planned remediation. Additionally, the District’s website offers the results for each school tested in phase one, as well as frequently asked questions, District, state and federal resources.
Please be assured we will take all action necessary to protect student health and we will continue to update our staff, families, and community as new information becomes available.
The question to seek medical tests is a parental decision. Medical experts note that results found today may not reflect lead levels in the past. Additionally, any past elevation could be due to a number of sources including water, but also paint from older homes, lead in soil, hobbies, parental occupation, spices, jewelry, cosmetics, toys, etc.
Dr. Jennifer A. Lowry works as a Pediatrician and Toxicologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City and also serves as professor of Pediatrics for University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine.
“Children under the age of 6 (and more importantly, under the age of 3) years are the most vulnerable to the effects of lead due to the immature neurologic system and the adverse impacts it has on development,” said Dr. Lowry, who also serves as the Chair to the Council on Environmental Health for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Lead in water can be most damaging when children drink a high amount of water, such as bottle-fed infants. As children age, the amount of water consumed decreases largely due to substitution of other liquids. Thus, in a school setting for children 5 and over, the amount of water ingested is variable, but not as significant as when they were younger.”
More resources are provided at the end of this document and include this public health statement as well as the following statement from the Illinois Department of Health (IDPH): While any source of lead exposure to children is concerning, the majority of child lead poisoning is attributed to lead paint and lead in soil. Even so, IDPH is addressing water as a source of lead in schools by requiring Illinois' school districts to test for lead in water and report findings to parents and guardians. IDPH has established a low threshold for reporting to allow parents to be informed about risks their children may be exposed to at school. Risk will vary however, depending on the individual, the circumstances, and the amount of water consumed. A blood test is the only way to find out if your child has a high lead level. Most children with high levels of lead in their blood have no symptoms. Your child's health care provider can recommend treatment if your child has been exposed to lead.
“What parents should take from this is that their child may have had an elevated blood lead level in the past, but what happens going forward is most important,” Dr. Lowry said. “Engaging children in academics and interests, good nutrition, and optimizing resources can help overcome many adverse events, including lead exposures.”