A Missouri House Bill Would Reduce Poisonous Lead in School Drinking Water. Should Nebraska Follow Suit?
By Niara Savage, NPR Midwest Newsroom Reporting Fellow & Allison Kite, Missouri Independent Data Reporter
March 30, 2022, 6 a.m. ·
Missouri children would be better protected from lead poisoning under a state legislative bill to require schools to nearly rid their drinking water of the dangerous toxin.
The bill, heard Monday by the House Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, would require schools to test drinking water, remove old coolers and filter water where lead is found. The goal is drinking water with a lead concentration of less than one part per billion. The state’s current action level for drinking water is 15 times that.
In telling her colleagues about the bill on Monday, Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, said the legislation would require schools to test their water and then mitigate. Typically, she said, adding filters would be the best fix.
“Filtering is going to be a lot easier than pulling all the pipes out,” Bailey said.
Lead is a colorless, odorless, poisonous heavy metal and neurotoxin that can have irreversible effects on organ systems in the body. Children are especially vulnerable and may suffer slowed growth and development, as well as hearing, speech and learning problems as a result of exposure — even at low levels.
“This is truly a kid-first bill,” said Rep. Paula Brown, D-St. Louis, who worked on the legislation with Bailey.
State governments already have funds, provided by federal grants, for schools that voluntarily test their water. But if the bill passes, Missouri would stand apart from peers in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska by requiring action at such low levels.
The prevalence of lead poisoning has declined steadily in the last several decades. Forty years ago, more than 80% of children had lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter in their blood, more than double the level modern health professionals consider elevated, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But while lead has been banned in gasoline, paint and pipes for decades, it remains in older homes and buildings.
Between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018, more than 2,500 Missouri children — just over 3% of those tested — were found to have blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter. In Nebraska’s most recent report, 300 children — less than 1% — had elevated blood lead levels. More than 500 Kansas kids — almost 2% — had elevated blood lead levels, according to the state’s most recent report. In Iowa, where officials have updated their definition of “elevated” blood lead levels under federal guidance, more than 1,100 children had more than 3.5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood in 2020.
Iowa Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, has introduced similar ideas in his state and pushed state agencies to spend pandemic relief money to install filters. But he said his bills haven’t gotten committee hearings, and agencies have been slow to act.
He said the lack of action was “astonishing.”
“We’re too busy banning trans girls from playing sports and passing bills that allow people to use Ivermectin when they’re on a ventilator,” Bolkcom said.
Eradicating the remaining environmental lead has been a priority for President Joe Biden’s administration, bringing about a national discussion about the toxin’s legacy of contamination. The infrastructure law passed by Congress and signed by Biden last year allocates $15 billion in funds to replace lead service lines in the next five years.
Bailey and supporters of her legislation noted federal COVID-19 relief funds could help pay for the efforts in Missouri schools. A House budget subcommittee discussed adding $20 million for lead filtration to an appropriations bill still being weighed by the larger Budget Committee.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends lead concentration in school drinking not exceed one part per billion because it is the lowest detectable level, although there is no known safe blood lead concentration. The Environmental Protection Agency requires public water systems to take action if more than 10% of routine samples have 15 or more parts per billion of lead.
The primary lead hazard to children in Missouri is exposure to deteriorated lead-based paint, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
“We’ve been working on that,” said Bridget Sanderson, director of Environment Missouri and supporter of the legislation. “And now we just have to update our aging infrastructure to help protect our children.”
Lead in school drinking water is common in states across the country. Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that of the 12 states included in the 2019 study, 44% of schools had at least one water sample test above the state’s lead concentration action level.
Some states are taking a more direct approach. Lawmakers in Michigan and Colorado proposed bills based on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s “filter first” model legislation, requiring schools to install filters without going through the hassle of testing. Proponents of that strategy say installing filters is more cost-effective than testing water sources.
But that’s just a temporary fix, not a permanent solution, said Joan Matthews, head of the urban water management team at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Matthews developed the model legislation.
“The moonshot is to remove lead from plumbing, fixtures, fitting, and solder,” Matthews said. “Just get rid of the lead.”
A truly lead-free school should not have any lead in its plumbing, the Missouri Filter First Coalition says. But the federal definition of “lead-free” in the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, which took effect in 2014, allows for a weighted average of 0.25% lead across parts of pipes and fitting that come into contact with water in any system providing water for human consumption.
“I guess it’s an interim approach,” Mathews said. “Until we get totally lead-free plumbing.”
The Missouri Independent and the NPR Midwest Newsroom are jointly exploring the issue of high levels of lead in the children in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Do you have a question for us or a story to share? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com