NC doesn't test drinking water in schools for lead

Posted March 21, 2019 7:32 p.m. EDT
Updated March 21, 2019 8:12 p.m. EDT

— Five years after Flint, Mich., became a national cautionary tale because of high lead levels in its drinking water, North Carolina still doesn't require tests for lead, even at schools.

Lawmakers and environmental and health advocates said Thursday that the time has come to start such tests.

A study of dozens of child care centers in the Triangle area found 1 in 7 had at least one faucet with lead levels higher than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe.

"Test results now show that lead is even contaminating drinking water in schools and preschools, flowing from the fountains and faucets where our kids drink water every single day," Drew Ball, director of Environment North Carolina, said at a news conference. "In all likelihood, the confirmed cases of lead are likely just the tip of the iceberg."

The group gave North Carolina – and 21 other states – a failing grade when it comes to checking for lead levels in school water.

Doctors say there is no safe level of lead, and Jackie MacDonald Gibson, a professor of environmental sciences in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that's especially true for children.

"It impairs their cognitive development, can decrease IQ – and that's a permanent effect – and also can lead to adverse outcomes like increased rates of juvenile delinquency and poor performance in school," Gibson said.

House Bill 386 would require school districts to start testing for lead, remediating it where they find it and reporting the results to the state and to the public. The measure would provide $8 million in grants to help pay for the tests.

Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, a primary sponsor of the bill, said that, even if a water supply is safe, water can become contaminated with lead on its way from the street to a school drinking fountain or faucet.

"The very pipes it's flowing in, the joints of those pipes with lead solder and the fixtures the water's coming out of, any of those items are prone to leach lead contamination into the water," Warren said.

Although lead pipes and fixtures were outlawed in 1986, a lead content of up to 8 percent was still allowed in water faucets and fixtures until 2014. So, Warren and other sponsors want to test the water even in fairly new schools.