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Drinking water foundation

School starts in less than six weeks for the nearly 14,000 students who attend public schools in Missoula County. Another 1,000 or so students attend a private school.

Among the many pressing concerns about school safety is one important question parents might not think to ask: How safe is the drinking water?

Unfortunately, it’s not as safe as it should be.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, for one, recommends a limit of 1 part per billion for lead in school water systems — far less than the 15 ppb accepted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Lead is a heavy metal that is toxic if ingested in any amount, but children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning. Prolonged exposure to even small amounts of lead can cause their small, still-developing bodies to suffer limited bone growth; poor muscle coordination; decreased kidney, brain and nervous system function; and developmental delays. As noted by the environmental advocacy group Environment Montana’s Get the Lead Out initiative, medical research suggests that millions of American children are losing IQ points due to low levels of lead exposure.

With that in mind, recent reports are sounding the alarm about high lead levels in public schools — or at least, in those that test their water. In Montana, samples are taken only on a voluntary basis, and many schools, especially in rural areas, don’t regularly test their water systems for contaminants.

The Missoula County Public Schools district, thankfully, is among those that tests the water in its schools. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the results show some local schools have levels of lead that well exceed 1 ppb. In fact, records from Missoula County show lead in amounts at or above 1 part per billion in nearly 78 percent of the 140 samples tested from 2016 to 2018 — the highest of Montana’s four largest cities, according to Enrivonment Montana.

Only one school in the state returned a sample showing lead levels over 15 ppb — and it was in Missoula County. A test from Seeley-Swan High School measured a jaw-dropping amount of lead of 28 ppb, prompting district officials to immediately replace four fixtures and install a filter. The likely source of the problem was traced to a nearby defunct water line that had backed up into the building’s main water system.

Lead is a naturally occurring substance that is often used in pipes and other construction materials. Many Missoula County homes with older plumbing systems likely have lead components, which is one of the reasons why county health officials recommend that the owners of older homes and homes with private wells test their water for lead and other contaminants.

MCPS is in the closing phases of its major renovation and new construction plan funded by a bond approved by voters in November 2015, with completion on track ahead of the December 2020 timeline.

But parents shouldn’t assume that new or renovated buildings have eliminated the threat of lead contamination. Rattlesnake Elementary, which was among the first schools in the district to undergo renovation, had the next-highest lead content in the county, with 14 ppb — barely under the EPA’s overly generous standard.

Environment Montana’s statewide report included these results for schools in Missoula County:

  • Sentinel High School: 13 ppb
  • Lewis and Clark School: 12 ppb in the nurse’s office
  • Big Sky High School: 10 ppb in kitchen sinks
  • Russell Elementary: 10 ppb in a girls’ restroom
  • All other schools: less than 10 ppb.

Again, these are the results of testing done on a voluntary basis. A report released last week by the Government Accountability Office showed that less than half of school districts in the United States test the water in their schools for lead. Of those that do, 37 percent found elevated lead levels.

The majority of schools in Montana are not required to test for lead or any other contaminants, despite the state’s long and tragic history of Superfund-level toxins in rivers and watersheds. Of nearly 500 school districts in Montana, only about 100 are required to perform lead tests because they serve as their own water utility, according to Environment Montana. They are mostly located in rural communities. The four largest districts — Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls and Missoula — perform voluntary testing, and on average, about 75 percent of these tests show lead levels above 1 ppb.

As Environment Montana discovered when putting together its report, the results of voluntary water tests can be provided on an individual basis but are not otherwise readily available to the public. The state doesn’t keep its own public database of lead test results.

It should, and the first step to creating such a database would be to require all schools to undergo regular testing. The tests could be required on an annual basis for those school with high levels of lead, and followed up every five years or so for schools with a proven track record of lower lead levels.

Reducing lead exposure may be as simple as replacing a particular fixture or installing a filter, or as intensive as replacing old pipes. But these safety measures cannot be taken with any degree of confidence until the larger community has a good grasp on the extent of the problem.

Going forward, Missoula County should continue testing its schools, make the results more readily accessible to the public, and launch a wider discussion about how best to ensure the water our students drink is as safe as it can possibly be.

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