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Montana schools are finding elevated levels of lead, and they're stuck with the cleanup costs

Drinking fountain.
Joseph Thomas Photography

In Montana, there’s a new state requirement to test all K-12 schools for lead in water fixtures. Outdated and deteriorating plumbing infrastructure is a primary source of lead exposure, and young children under six years of age are particularly vulnerable.

It’s recess time at Warren Elementary School. Kids are running around and climbing on playground equipment with jackets unzipped on a warm February afternoon in Helena, Montana.

Just inside, colorful coats hang on hooks in a long hallway. On a small chalkboard, the words “be kind” are written in bright letters.

The Warren School is one of the 590 K-12 schools in Montana required — for the first time — to test for lead in all water fountains and sinks used for drinking or food preparation. A state rule that took effect in January 2020 gave schools a deadline: Dec. 31, 2021.

As of April 21, 2022, more than half have completed testing. The Warren School is one that has.

Cumulative exposure to lead affects kids’ nervous systems and brains, sometimes leading to learning difficulties, poor attention, decreased memory and behavior issues.

Neal Murray, the safety and operations manager for the Helena School District, started collecting water samples during summer break in 2021.

“Tackling something like this is important, because I think that as a school district, our primary focus has to be the safety of the children and our staff,” Murray says.

He immediately found lead in water at the school, and Helena Public Schools notified parents and staff.

“We know that our primary issues are with plumbing within the building,” he says.

It’s well established that lead is toxic, and one of the ways children are exposed is through drinking water piped through corroded plumbing in schools. Being odorless and colorless, you can’t see lead, taste it or smell it. But cumulative exposure affects kids’ nervous systems and brains, sometimes leading to learning difficulties, poor attention, decreased memory and behavior issues.

How lead levels are evaluated

People often refer to parts per billion, or ppb, when describing the amount of contaminants in drinking water or soil. A concentration of 1 part per billion is equivalent to about one drop of water in a small hotel swimming pool. So, not very much.

The federal government — specifically the Environmental Protection Agency — requires action if the lead concentration in a drinking water sample is found to be 15 parts per billion or higher.

“The level is not necessarily health-based. It was developed back in the early 90s for a variety of reasons,” Greg Montgomery says.

Montgomery knows a lot about this. He manages the school lead program at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ partners with Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services to carry out the school testing requirement.

More than 11,000 fixtures have been tested so far in Montana schools. Just over a quarter of them were over the allowable state limit of five parts per billion. A little less than 10% were over 15 parts per billion.

“The Montana program uses a five parts per billion number for the school program. That's not health-based, either, because a health-based number for lead is zero. But that's basically as low as most labs can accurately measure lead with any kind of degree of certainty.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends lead in drinking water not exceed 1 part per billion, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there’s no safe level of lead in children’s blood.

More than 11,000 fixtureshave been tested so far in Montana schools. Just over a quarter of them were over the allowable state limit of five parts per billion. A little less than 10% were over 15 parts per billion.

Missoula County Public Schools sampled all of its fixtures and then decided to shut down all the ones that tested over 5 ppb. That’s about a fourth of all the fixtures providing water.

“Schools are required to remediate anything over five parts per billion. If they get results between five and 15 parts per billion, they can routinely flush it for a little bit to flush the stagnant water out where the lead tends to accumulate. And they can do that until they come up with a permanent remedy,” Montgomery says.

If concentrations are greater than 15 parts per billion, schools are required to shut off the fixtures immediately until they can figure out how to get the level down. Some of the fixtures that tested far above the threshold were in places like custodian’s closets, where students won’t use them. Others were not, like a drinking fountain at Havre’s Highland Park School, which tested at 224 parts per billion. At Philipsburg’s 7-12 School, a classroom sink had 3,660 parts per billion.

More than a quarter of fixtures in Montana schools tested over 5 parts per billion as of April 21, 2022.
Erica Zurek
More than a quarter of fixtures in Montana schools tested over 5 parts per billion as of April 21, 2022.

There's no safe level of lead

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician and professor with Michigan State University. Her research exposed the Flint water crisis. And she says the science is clear.

“There's no safe level of lead. We shouldn't even think about, like, ‘well, how much is okay?’ Well, none’s okay.”

Children younger than six are especially vulnerable to lead exposure. And even low levels of exposure can cause irreversible harm and long-term effects. The World Health Organization says young children absorb four to five times as much ingested lead as adults exposed to the same source.

“It is a poison, it attacks our nervous system, it attacks developing brains, like it lowers IQ levels, impacts behavior, it's been linked to all kinds of things — but we can prevent it,” Hanna-Attisha says. “And we know how to prevent it. And we just have to have the political will, and the dollars to do that.”

Montana schools are now required every three to five years to collect water samples. Lead samples in water are pretty easy to collect, but testing is really nuanced, Hanna-Attisha says.

You can test the same fixture 10 different times and get 10 different results.

“So that makes sampling complicated. And even with testing, you're not guaranteeing that what comes out of the tap is safe. It potentially can provide false reassurance that the water is safe when it’s not. So when it comes to lead in water, when it comes to lead in schools in water, the goal is to make sure that we’ve found the lead in the delivery system, and put into place precautions to restrict the release of lead.”

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
Courtesy of Michigan State University
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Remediation can be expensive, and schools are paying the bill ... for now

Eliminating all lead by replacing plumbing is expensive, complicated and takes time. The DEQ has funding through an EPA grant for schools, but that can only be used for sampling.

Potential sources of funding for remediation include the state’s revolving fund and loan program, flexible levies run by the schools, low-interest loans and money from the federal infrastructure bill that passed in 2021. But for now, school districts have to pay for it themselves from existing budgets.

Small changes can help

“But in the meantime, installing these lead-clearing filtration hydration stations that are high volume, have high flow, and that are well maintained to allow kids safe access to drinking water,” Hanna-Attisha says.

And that’s exactly what Neal Murray did at the Warren School. About 60 water faucets were replaced. All the fixtures now have filters, and the school installed filtering water bottle filler stations — like the ones in airports.

“So they have multiple sources of safe drinking water. Kids do spend a lot of time in the schools, but the other part of that is they spend a lot of time at home,” Murray says.

That means even if a child's school does not have high lead levels, they might face other sources of exposure. A 2016 study conducted by Quest Diagnostics and Boston Children's Hospital shows over half of U.S. children have detectable levels of lead in their blood.

“There are sources of exposure of lead everywhere,” Valerie Stacey says.

Stacey’s an environmental health specialist with Lewis and Clark Public Health in Helena.

“This is something that's impacting someone's ability to do well in school or someone's ability to do well, just in life in general and relationships,” she says. “Forever. That's huge. You know, that's huge.”

On April 20, an advisory commission on Montana’s American Rescue Plan Infrastructure voted 7-2 against a proposal to spend federal money to remediate lead in schools. Even though the motion failed, the commission plans to revisit this topic at a future meeting. The DEQ continues reaching out to schools that have not yet sampled, encouraging them to do so.

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