It’s National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, so let’s take a minute to address one pervasive pathway to lead exposure that everyone in Revere should be talking about: our drinking water.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin that impairs how children learn, grow, and behave. Even low levels of exposure have been linked to lower IQ, hyperactivity, and damage to children’s central and peripheral nervous systems. Our children are especially vulnerable to absorbing this toxin. The bottom line: there is no safe level of lead exposure.
Unfortunately, there are many ways kids can come in contact with lead. You might immediately think of lead paint, which was commonly found in homes until it was banned in 1978. Or you might think of lead particles in dust, or in the dirt our children play in.
Yet in the wake of Flint, we’re all too aware that this dangerous toxin was used to construct another cornerstone of our lives: the pipes and plumbing that bring water to our taps. Now we’re facing the repercussions, as this toxic threat infiltrates the water of communities across the nation.
Lead has even been found in schools, flowing from faucets and fountains our children drink from every day. Since 2016, Massachusetts has tested over 78,000 school taps in districts across the Commonwealth. Nearly half had lead in the water.
In Revere, nine schools took part in this voluntary testing program. The results showed that 40 percent of taps tested in schools across Revere had lead over the one part per billion standard recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In all likelihood, these confirmed cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Most schools have at least some lead in their pipes, plumbing, or fixtures. And where there is lead, there is a risk of contamination. So maybe that fountain outside your third-grader’s classroom tested clean last week. But who knows what the water would look like if they tested it again today? The corrosion of lead pipes and fixtures is inconsistent, meaning that a tap that tests clean one day could be laced with lead the next.
How do we address this widespread threat? The answer is simple. We must shift the paradigm from reactive to proactive.
Instead of waiting for tests to confirm that our children have been drinking lead, we can start by immediately installing filters certified to remove lead on every faucet and fountain used for drinking or cooking in schools across the Commonwealth. And because there is risk wherever there is lead, we’ll also need to “get the lead out” by replacing the lead pipes, solder and fixtures that cause the contamination in the first place.
And finally, because even low levels of lead can irreversibly damage children’s health, schools must shut off taps where lead in water exceeds one part per billion, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. This health-based standard stands in contrast with the current ”action level” of 15 parts per billion, which was designed by EPA to trigger system-wide action by water utilities— not to guarantee safe water for children at every tap.
Last legislative session, Sen. Joan Lovely (Salem) and Rep. Lori Ehrlich (Marblehead) demonstrated leadership on the issue by introducing a bill laying out these critical steps to protect our children from lead-laced water at school. Although it did not pass, the bill was sponsored by 79 legislators, a clear sign of growing concern about the effects of lead on our children.
So as we mark National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, now would be an excellent time for our current and aspiring elected officials to declare their commitment to “get the lead out” of drinking water at our schools. Our children can’t wait any longer.
Emma Dietz, clean water associate
Dr. Heather-Lyn Haley, Community Health Project Director
University of Massachusetts Medical School