Georgia offered schools money to test their water for lead. Most didn’t sign up. Why?
Lead exposure can have serious health consequences for children, but only a fraction of Georgia schools have signed up for a free testing program.
Advocates worry school leaders are worried about the cost and consequences of discovering lead in their water systems, which the state has not provided funding to address.
In July 2021, the Georgia Department of Education announced a new initiative to provide free funding and resources for schools across the state to test their drinking water for lead. At its launch, the “Clean Water for Georgia Kids” program, administered by RTI International, a North Carolina nonprofit, aimed to test “up to 800” schools during its first year.
More than a year later, just 96 schools and day cares have enrolled in the program, and 82 have completed testing — a small fraction of Georgia’s more than 2,300 schools and 3,100 day cares. In a meeting on Dec. 8, Georgia’s state Board of Education voted to renew RTI’s contract for the testing program.
The Georgia program’s underenrollment stands in stark contrast to the successes of the pilot program on which it was modeled. In North Carolina, from June 2020 to September 2021, RTI International succeeded in testing lead levels at every operating day care in the state. Schools were not included.
But North Carolina’s legislature made participation mandatory; in Georgia, schools and day cares may voluntarily opt in to the program, which offers schools the training and resources to collect samples at all of their taps, which RTI International then tests.
In an effort to persuade schools to enroll, “we’ve been hitting it hard in Georgia, spreading the word, talking about it at conferences,” said Sara Morris, the Department of Education’s assistant director of facilities services.
But the primary reason the program is underenrolled isn’t that schools don’t know about it.
The more likely explanation for schools’ apparent reluctance to take the state up on its offer of free testing resources, program administrators and environmental advocates say, is that while the testing is free, there is no funding provided to help schools address any lead contamination they may find.
Some are pushing for the state government to address this issue. At a press conference outside the state capitol last month, the advocacy group Environment Georgia urged Gov. Brian Kemp to create a “lead remediation fund” to help schools replace lead pipes. The group says the state could tap federal funding sources established for this purpose in the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, laws signed by President Biden.
“Schools participating in the Clean Water for Georgia Kids testing program should have a clear path to funding to help schools fix problems they find — otherwise schools may forgo testing to avoid the price tag that they may face when they learn the results,” said State Rep. Becky Evans of Atlanta at the press conference.
Evans also called on the legislature to require mandatory annual water testing at public schools.
Results for schools that have tested
Children are uniquely vulnerable to even low levels of lead in their environment. Lead exposure reduces children’s IQ scores, can cause behavioral and learning problems, and has even been associated with juvenile delinquency and crime rates.
For environmental advocates, the prevalence of dangerous lead levels found at the Georgia schools that did test highlighted the necessity of getting more schools to enroll.
Of the facilities tested in Georgia, 30 — or 37% — found at least one tap with lead levels in excess of over 15 parts per billion, the “action level” at which federal regulation requires utilities to address the contamination.
Eighteen facilities (22% of those tested) had no lead levels over 1 ppb, the limit recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In Bibb County, only one facility, Central Georgia Technical College’s Macon Early Childhood Learning Center, has enrolled in testing through the program.
At the Central Georgia Tech day care, four taps were tested in May. At two water fountains, there was no lead over 0.1 ppb (the lowest amount detectable at RTI International’s testing facility). Two kitchen sinks contained lead levels of 0.46 and 0.54 ppb.
The Bibb County school system’s communications director, Stephanie Hartley, wrote in an email that the school district is “looking into how testing may benefit us, but we have not finalized any testing or made any decisions about testing yet.”
In other Middle Georgia counties, including Monroe, Jones, Twiggs, Peach, Crawford, and Bleckley counties, no schools were tested.
Since the effects of lead exposure are cumulative, the consequences of an untested school district even with relatively low lead levels could be serious for students.
“A kid in a school system who goes from preschool all the way through high school is continuing to get that exposure through those years,” Morris said. “This is an important thing for school systems to look at and this is a free opportunity for them to test that.”
For Environment Georgia’s director Jennette Gayer, getting lead out of drinking water should be a no-brainer for schools trying to better student outcomes by asking, “What are their test scores and how are children doing post-pandemic? And one of the really important contributors to that is, are they ingesting this toxin that affects your ability to learn?”
What schools can do
Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, director of environmental health and water quality at RTI, who ran the organization’s lead testing programs in North Carolina and Georgia, credits the Georgia program’s underenrollment to a number of factors.
“The voluntary aspect of it and the lack of mitigation funds to date, along with the fact that there’s staffing shortages all over and additional COVID protocols within the operational aspects of the program, has made it more challenging for enrollment,” Redmon said.
Redmon spoke to The Telegraph from Savannah, where she was at a conference spreading the word about the testing program to Georgia school administrators.
Redmon said some schools have not tested because they are confident there isn’t lead contamination, especially those with newer facilities, who assume that their building materials are lead-free. To such objections she responds simply, “New buildings can still be built in an old town.”
“It’s just important to note that most places don’t have lead service line inventories, and even if you don’t have lead service lines, there’s an allowable amount of lead in piping and plumbing” per building regulations, Redmon said. Plus, the allowable amounts have been lowered over time, so plumbing that was once considered lead-free may no longer be.
And while some schools have had their water tested by local utilities, Redmon said, “Most utilities test to 3 parts per billion or 5 parts per billion, which is 30-to-50 times higher than our detection limit — and that’s important because there’s no safe level of lead exposure.”
Other schools’ reluctance to test stems not from what they think they won’t find, but what they fear they might.
“There’s some hesitancy sometimes about ‘Is this going to create an outcry where people are concerned, and then we have like a PR issue on our hands?’” Redmon said.
Then there’s the cost of mitigation measures, which the program does not fund.
But lead contamination in drinking water turns out to be less difficult and costly to address than schools may have guessed.
Some immediate fixes — like turning off the individual taps with contaminated fixtures — cost nothing. Another, Redmon said, is “using cold water for drinking and cooking, even if you are using it for infant formula preparation or for tea, because hotter water leaches lead.”
Then there are “low-cost solutions” which are much simpler than the daunting task of replacing a school’s pipes and plumbing system.
In many cases, replacing a faucet fixture and installing a water filter at an individual tap can remove elevated lead levels, Redmon said.
Gayer said schools can take these steps even in the absence of confirmed lead contamination. “Schools should be doing the work proactively to get kids safe drinking water, so I think you could totally skip the testing if you wanted to” and install “hydration stations” that filter out lead.
Gayer suggested the state could use federal funding to install this technology in schools on a large scale.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Telegraph.