Advocating for a Lower Water-Lead Action Level to Protect Children

Fifty years after the federal government began enacting laws to prevent lead exposure, lead poisoning remains a significant public health issue for children. Even low blood-lead levels in children can affect nearly every bodily system, resulting in developmental delays, learning difficulties, and health problems. Most commonly, children are exposed to lead through contaminated paint and dust. Although drinking water is considered a less prevalent source of lead poisoning, recent studies have highlighted the hazards of this exposure route, particularly for vulnerable populations such as young children. Lead enters drinking water via corroding lead pipes, fixtures, and solder. The U.S. began banning leaded plumbing elements in 1987, but current law still allows minimal amounts of lead to be present in drinking water infrastructure despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that no safe blood-lead level exists.   

Lead in school drinking water is a particular concern since children often spend all day in school facilities and receive much of their drinking water from them. In New York, over 17,000 children under the age of six (3% of those tested) had elevated blood-lead levels in 2016. The same year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo enacted a law requiring all public schools to test their tap water for lead and remediate any outlets that had water-lead concentrations exceeding 15 parts per billion (ppb).  

Results from the first round of testing in 2016 showed that 11% of the ~300,000 taps tested in New York public schools exceeded the 15 ppb action level. While this finding is alarming, it is even more concerning in light of recommendations that water-lead limits be set even lower to protect children’s health. The 15 ppb action level, promulgated by EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, is not a health-based standard. The World Health Organization recommends a level of 10 ppb, which has been adopted by the European Union and Canada. Several U.S. states including DC, Michigan, and Illinois have implemented an even more protective level of 5 ppb, while the American Academy of Pediatrics holds that a 1 ppb limit is necessary to protect children.

New York has been a leader in mandating the testing, reporting, and fixing of public school taps, but results from 2016 indicate that our work is not done. Prior to the next round of periodic testing in 2020, NYLCV is analyzing the 2016 lab reports from all 4,700 public schools in New York to model the impact of a lower lead action level which would be more protective of school communities. Because we know that children’s health can be impacted by even very low water-lead levels, gaining a better understanding of the location and number of taps with elevated lead is essential for organizing around a lower action level. Our goal is to analyze this data prior to the 2020 round of testing in order to educate school administrators, concerned communities, and policy decision-makers on the importance of instating a more protective action level to ensure that our public schools are not contributing to childhood lead poisoning in New York.