By Katie Peikes, Iowa Public Radio News
University of Iowa researchers have found unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water of some Iowa schools, but it’s unclear how deep this problem goes.
Lead is a toxin that can harm human health, can lead to issues like anemia and kidney and brain damage, and can even cause death at very high levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency both say there is no safe level of lead in children’s’ blood.
The University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination started testing school drinking water fountains and classroom faucets for lead in spring 2019. They got through all the fountains and faucets in eight schools and gave schools money to remove and replace them if they needed to. The center planned to test two more Iowa schools, but paused because of the pandemic.
David Cwiertny, the center’s director and a UI professor of civil and environmental engineering, said lead can come from a variety of sources like drinking water fountains, pipes, and plumbing.
“So it can be a very challenging issue to fix because it can be highly localized,” Cwiertny said. “One tap in one classroom might be fine. One classroom over, you might have unsafe lead levels.”
Among the samples they took, researchers tested nearly 140 water fountains and faucets in three Keokuk elementary schools and 105 fountains and faucets in three Dubuque elementary schools. In Keokuk schools, they found five water samples with lead above 15 parts per billion. That’s the EPA’s standard where action must be taken to fix the problem. Researchers also found 47 samples with lead in the 1-14 ppb range.
Across three Dubuque elementary schools, they sampled 105 fountains and faucets. Five of the samples were above the EPA’s 15 ppb standard, while 12 other locations yielded results of 1-8 ppb.
Most Iowa schools aren’t allowing students and staff to use their water fountains because of hygiene concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. But Cwiertny said this leads to increased concerns around lead and copper.
“We know that when water stagnates in pipes, problems arise like lead and copper through increased corrosion,” Cwiertny said. He added that as schools “finally start allowing use of those fountains, there might be increased opportunities for lead and copper challenges.”
Iowa only requires a water fountain or faucet to be taken out of service if the amount of lead reaches 20 ppb, Cwiertny said.
The EPA gave Iowa around $460,000 this year to test for lead in drinking water in schools and child care programs, though Cwiertny said the funds are estimated to cover only about 40 percent of the public schools and childcare facilities in Iowa. Heather Doe, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education, said the department received an extension on the grant through 2022.
“We will be launching an application in January for schools to express their interest in participating,” Doe said in an email to IPR.
Tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of Iowans at risk from drinking water with lead
UI researchers estimate tens of thousands of Iowans every year are drinking water potentially contaminated with lead, but the number is higher depending on the different health and environmental guidelines available.
UI civil and environmental engineering professor Michelle Scherer and her team crunched some numbers and found that 65,000 Iowans every year are potentially at risk from drinking water with lead above the EPA’s standard of 15 parts per billion, while more than 700,000 Iowans each year are drinking water with lead potentially above 1 ppb. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended to state and local governments that water fountains in schools not exceed 1 ppb.
Scherer said one in five Iowa newborns have elevated levels of lead in their blood.
“There’s really no other compelling reason we need to be able to rationalize why we need to be spending our time as researchers and environmental advocates, as well as spending resources here in Iowa to look at this,” Scherer said.
Scherer laid out some of her priorities for how to address lead in drinking water, including promoting water testing at home and digitally mapping Iowa’s lead service lines. These are the lead pipes that drinking water flows through. Scherer said there are 160,000 lead service lines in Iowa, but researchers don’t know where all of them are.
“I’m not saying we need to remove all of them,” she said. “Eventually we do, we’re going to have to go on to a plan like that. But that’s a long term solution. And it’s going to be expensive.”