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Drinking water foundation

Montanans have some summer homework to complete before the school year begins this fall. The state Department of Public Health and Human Services is considering changes to school health rules — and a requirement that all schools test their water systems for lead. Parents, teachers and concerned community members should take this opportunity to demand mandatory water testing.

It’s a small expense to spare generations of children the long-term health effects of lead poisoning. Montana’s long history with contaminated water, and the high lead levels found in local public schools that do test their water, provide good reason for concern.

Lead exposure, while harmful for adults, is a major concern for children because their brains and bodies are still developing, and the long-term exposure to the heavy metal can severely limit bone growth, impair the kidneys and nervous system, and cause lasting developmental delays. Even a small amount of lead is considered toxic if it is ingested, and medical research links even low levels of exposure to lower IQ scores. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that schools allow no more than 1 part per billion of lead in their water systems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accepts a limit of 15 ppb.

Yet despite the clear health risks, in Montana, schools test their water on a purely voluntary basis. Many smaller schools and those in more rural parts of the state test their water rarely, if ever.

Last summer, as part of its Get the Lead Out initiative, the advocacy group Environment Montana shared the results of water samples conducted by those schools that do such testing. It showed that many schools in Montana have levels of lead in their water that well exceed 1 ppb. Missoula County schools provided 140 samples from 2016 and 2018, and 78 percent of them contained greater than 1 ppb of lead — and one test from Seeley-Swan High School contained 28 ppb.

School district officially immediately replaced four fixtures and installed a water filter, and soon traced the source of the problem to an old backed-up water line.

But the problem never would have been caught had school officials not recognized the need to regularly test for lead and voluntarily send in water samples for testing. Students in other schools may not be so lucky.

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that is commonly used in construction materials, including those for homes and businesses. Many older homes in Missoula County likely have lead plumbing components, and county health officials recommend that these property owners consider testing their water for lead, too.

A student living in an older home with higher-than-recommended amounts of lead in the water system, and going to school in a building that contains lead in its water system as well, is likely to suffer some degree of lead poisoning with symptoms that may not become apparent for many years.

Schools should set the baseline for health by testing their water. That should not even be a point for debate. Testing must be done on a regular basis because, like the Seeley-Swan school example illustrates, old systems can sometimes back into newer ones, pipes can leak and contaminants can seep into water supplies.

Individual school districts can discuss what level of lead they are willing to allow, but we would hope they would err on the side of caution and follow the advice of the experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics. That’s no more than 1 ppb of lead in drinking water.

School districts should also make it a point to post the results of their water tests in an easily accessible and understandable format, such as on their websites. All parents, but in particular the parents of children with special health concerns, would doubtless appreciate being able to look up this information without a lot of hassle.

At their most recent public meeting, the Department of Public Health and Human Services noted that several school organizations had written in response to the proposed rule changes, and opted to extend the public comment period until Sept. 16.

In the meantime, school staff and parents alike should take the opportunity to write in support of a water testing requirement for lead for all school districts in the state. Visit the DPHHS website (https://dphhs.mt.gov/schoolhealth/schooladministrativerules) for more information, or send comments to Gwen Knight, Department of Public Health and Human Services, Office of Legal Affairs, P.O. Box 4210, Helena, Montana, 59604-4210; fax (406) 444- 9744; or e-mail dphhslegal@mt.gov.

Other proposed changes, such as one that would update tobacco signage, deserve scrutiny and thoughtful consideration, too. After all, the current rules have not been updated since 1986. The proposed changes were formed with input from DPHHS, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and county health officials. Some, like mandatory water testing, come with an added cost burden for school districts. Taxpayers should weigh any added burden against the potential benefits, and school and health officials should look for outside sources of aid, such as federal grants, to help cover additional costs.

But lead testing is a no-brainer. The ability to detect and fix problematic water systems clearly outweighs any upfront costs, which are minimal to begin with. Even the most sophisticated water testing kits can be purchased for less than $30.

Testing would provide reassurance of safe water in our schools — or shine the spotlight on water systems in need of replacement. In either case, it’s basic information that communities must have in order to make important decisions about replacing leaky pipes or aging water systems.

Before Montana schools can pass or fail, they first have to take the test.

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