Parent advocates are urging Montgomery County Public Schools officials to tighten their standards for lead contamination in drinking water, potentially bringing them in line with school systems in D.C. or Prince George’s County.
MCPS is in the middle of conducting its first districtwide drinking water analysis in about a decade, and reports on the first 21 schools were completed earlier this month. Water samples from 12 of those schools contained lead levels that exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard of 20 parts per billion, and MCPS is taking action to address the issues found at the drinking fountains and faucets in the schools.
But Laura Stewart, a Silver Spring parent who’s been advocating for the lead testing, is urging school system leaders to adopt a lower threshold for lead in drinking water, noting that health experts have found even minimal levels of exposure can be harmful to young children.
“Considering that MCPS has waited 11 to 14 years to test most of its schools for this toxic substance in its water, an aggressive plan to try to limit exposure is now imperative,” Stewart told the school board last week.
County Council member Marc Elrich said he is exploring the possibility of establishing stricter lead standards for drinking sources at playgrounds, recreation centers and schools. On Tuesday, Elrich said he’s reached out to the county’s public health services director, Dr. Travis Gayles, to ask whether the council can pass such a measure in its capacity as the Montgomery County Board of Health.
“There’s no safe level of lead, and while it may be impossible to get to zero, I think we’re using 20 parts per billion. … That’s too high,” Elrich said.
Prince George’s County Public Schools takes corrective action when drinking fountains or other drinking water sources show lead concentrations exceeding 10 parts per billion. D.C. public schools has set a threshold of 5 parts per billion, the Food and Drug Administration standard for bottled water. Schools in states including California have capped lead levels at 15 parts per billion, and the Pennsylvania state legislature is considering a measure that would require public and private schools to install filters or make other fixes for any level above 5 parts per billion, according to news reports.
During her testimony last week, Stewart, a committee leader in the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, cited an American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that schools make sure drinking fountains have lead levels below 1 part per billion. Researchers have found even low levels of exposure in children can impact academic performance and lead to behavioral problems such as inattention, aggression and hyperactivity.
Board of Education members last week asked MCPS staff to look into adopting a lower action standard for lead in school drinking water.
“If we can evaluate that to have it more aligned with the [Centers for Disease Control] and the Academy of Pediatrics recommendation, knowing that any level of lead is not safe for growing bodies, that would be good,” school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse said.
School board member Pat O’Neill added that she and her colleagues are planning to discuss the topic during an April 12 meeting.
MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said staff haven’t had time to finish assessing the impact of adjusting the lead standard but are looking into it based on the school board members’ discussion last week.
Tightening the standard would likely come with a cost for the school system. In a letter to parents, a principal at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring explained that elevated lead levels can be addressed by replacing a water station, taking it permanently out of commission or installing a filtration system.
So far, 1,473 drinking fountains and faucets in the 21 locations across MCPS have been checked for lead, and lead levels of more than 20 parts per billion have shown up in samples from 12 schools and 21 water outlets. But all 21 tested schools had samples with lead concentrations at or above 5-parts-per-billion level, and, by reviewing the test reports, Stewart has counted about 150 outlets that might need remediation if this standard were used. All but two of the tested schools had samples with levels of 10 parts per billion or more.
The highest reading was from Gaithersburg Elementary School, where one drinking fountain showed a lead level of 253 parts per billion, more than 12 times the recommended EPA limit.
James Song, MCPS director of facilities management, last month sent parents a letter explaining that any water fountains or faucets with lead levels of more than 20 parts per billion would be “taken out of service immediately, replaced, and retested prior to the outlet being returned to services.”
Elrich said he wants to ask Gayles if the county should test children who might have been exposed to school drinking water containing heightened levels of lead. And he’s looking for school system leaders to explain why it’s been more than 10 years since the last round of comprehensive testing.
“I would say, I’m rather shocked,” he said.
Stewart said she’s encouraged MCPS to hold meetings with parents to explain the test results and provide a detailed plan for fixing any problematic drinking outlets. She said parents also want to know when the lead testing will take place at their children’s school and has asked MCSP to release a schedule.
The school system began its assessment project after last year’s passage of a state bill aimed at requiring public and private schools across Maryland to check lead levels. Up to that point, the state had no requirement for checking schools for lead in drinking water.
The legislation also directed the Maryland Department of the Environment to develop regulations for water testing at schools. MDE held a public hearing late last month on the proposed regulations and on March 30 will publish a notice of final action to adopt them, an agency spokesman said. The regulations are effective 10 days after publication.
“Ensuring that Maryland children have safe water to drink at their schools is a priority for the Maryland Department of the Environment. We are establishing rules for testing drinking water in those schools to protect our children from the health effects of exposure to lead,” Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said in a prepared statement.
The school system has posted the lead testing reports online.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com.