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New rule requires schools to test water for lead

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LAKE COUNTY – A new state regulation intended to protect school children from drinking contaminated water will require schools to regularly test water students might consume. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, lead poisoning — the buildup of lead in the body -- can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems; and at extreme levels, lead can cause comas or death. Children ages three to six are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning because they are growing quickly.

Lead can become present in drinking water when pipes, faucets or plumbing fixtures leach lead into the water. 

Ronan School District Superintendent Mark Johnston said he thought the regulation was a good idea. “My number one feeling is that we want to make sure that our water is safe for our kids,” Johnston said. 

Under the new regulation, schools will be required to test all drinking fountains and sinks used for food preparation once every three years with the first round of tests required before the end of 2021. If lead is found in small concentrations, the schools can flush out the fixtures until they show a safe reading. If the test reveals more than 15 parts per billion of lead in the water, the district must shut off the fixture immediately, and the school must replace the fixture with a fixture that produces water that is not contaminated with unsafe amounts of lead. 

Johnston said his district is served by city water, and he felt confident that the tests the city runs to keep lead out of its water supply would have caught any elevated rates of the contaminant in school water. 

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services implemented the rule in January. The rule was initially proposed in 2018 but was delayed when the Montana Office of Public Instruction and the state teachers’ union opposed it for financial reasons. They requested an extended comment period so the state could gather more information. The State of Montana will provide assistance with the cost of analysis through a grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency.  Johnston said he thought the benefits of ensuring safe drinking water would outweigh any financial costs to the district. 

An April 2018 report from Environment Montana Research and Policy Center showed that on average 75 percent of voluntary tests in four urban school districts around the state found lead concentrations of more than one part per billion in school water. The report raised alarm that children in schools might be consuming water containing an unhealthy concentration of the contaminant.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a health standard of no more than one part per billion of lead in school water.

According to Johnston, the rule is just another way the state can help promote successful futures for students. “Studies show that if levels of lead are too high it can substantially affect children’s ability to learn,” Johnston said. “The biggest reason [for supporting the rule] is that we want to make sure children can reach their full potential.”


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