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You may soon find out there's lead in your school's drinking water. Here's what's being done

LA Johnson

School districts across Missouri are currently testing drinking water in their buildings for lead contamination — and some have already found it.

A 2022 Missouri law requires schools to test drinking fountains, sinks and kitchen water sources for lead contamination. Districts have to complete that testing and report their findings publicly by next school year.

Already, some St. Louis-area districts have announced they found unsafe levels of lead in their water. The Hazelwood School District found levels of lead above the requirement in 63 water sources spread across 20 of its 32 buildings. In the Bayless School District, almost half of the high school’s fixtures that were tested had unacceptable levels of lead, although the district notes many of those were science lab sinks that likely aren’t used as drinking water.

The Rockwood School District was among the first to test its water. Director of Facilities Chris Freund said the district decided to get started early despite knowing the required announcements about lead levels might be worrying for the community.

“It's definitely something people are going to become more familiar with, it's just we were out in front of it a little bit,” Freund said.

Starting over the summer, Rockwood tested about 1,400 water sources. Of those, 190 exceeded the levels of lead set in the new law. The district has already remediated almost 70 water sources and plans to do more work over spring break. So far the effort has cost about $100,000, Freund said.

More than $27 million in federal funding is available from the American Rescue Plan Act to help schools pay for this. Rockwood will receive more than $425,000. Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services is overseeing grants to school districts across the state. This effort could lead to a widespread reduction in lead in Missouri schools, said Melissa May, the healthy drinking water unit chief at DHSS.

“There is no known safe level of lead in the body, and we know that children are most susceptible to the effects of lead, so anything that we can do to reduce lead exposure is good for our kiddos,” May said.

Lead exposure is especially dangerous for children, whose growing bodies can absorb it easily. The element can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and slow growth in kids.

In the Rockwood School District, many of the fixtures with contamination were not regularly used as drinking water sources, like sinks in kitchens that are only used as a backup for a dishwasher. Freund said so far it does not seem that the lead levels are related to a deeper infrastructure issue like pipes, but instead the contamination is largely coming from old filters or aerators. Still, he said this statewide effort to find and remove lead is helpful.

“This can't be anything but a good thing for our facilities, to raise awareness and get programs in place to deal with these testing issues and then remediation if necessary,” Freund said.

Missouri school districts have until the beginning of the 2024-25 school year to finish testing all water sources. They will be announcing results as they are available in the coming months.
Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Kate Grumke
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