Raleigh, N.C. — The House Regulatory Reform Committee approved a bill Thursday that would require state regulators to test any school or day care center built before 1987 for lead in its drinking water.
"There is an issue. We just don't know how big it is," said Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, the bill's primary sponsor.
Hager said he was inspired to pursue the measure after reading a USA Today report that detailed EPA data showing high levels of lead in drinking water found in schools across the nation, including several in North Carolina.
Ed Norman, manager of the Department of Health and Human Services' childhood lead poisoning prevention program, told lawmakers that his agency tests about 150,000 children a year for high levels of lead in their blood.
"We focus primarily on 1- and 2-year-olds," Norman said. "We do see more than 1,000 children a year with elevated exposures."
Of those roughly 1,000 children, there are typically around 100 whose blood levels are high enough that that it triggers an investigation.
"In most of those cases, it is lead-based paint related," he said, adding that "about 20 percent of their exposure" comes from water.
Under the bill, the state would pay for the water testing. Right now, Hager said, there is no systematic testing regimen for schools.
"What we find may really be scary," said Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union, who was among the lawmakers surprised the state doesn't already test for lead in schools.
Hager said there have been some sporadic testing over the past 30 years, but only when there had been indications of a problem. He stressed there is know way of knowing how widespread lead problems might be.
"They say the best time to do something would have been a session or two ago. Well, the next best time would be today," Hager told his colleagues.
The measure now goes to the House Health Committee for review.