Energy & Environment

A multi-agency state effort has successfully reduced lead in schools, officials say

A state program created by a 2019 law led to nearly all Vermont schools and child care programs addressing lead in their drinking water. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Almost all Vermont schools and child care programs have addressed lead in their drinking water systems thanks to a state program created and funded by a 2019 law, state officials announced this week. As a result, students’ exposure to lead has plummeted. 

Act 66 required schools and child care facilities to test drinking water systems for contamination, including all taps used for drinking or cooking. Schools had to replace fixtures or pipes to reduce lead levels when tests identified concentrations above the state’s “action level” of 4 parts per billion. 

According to a progress report released this month, 98% of schools have completed these replacements, prompting state officials to declare the program a success. As of February 2022, the majority of taps tested had lead concentrations of less than 1 part per billion. 

Test results are publicly available on a searchable online database

There is no safe level for lead in the body, according to the report. Exposure is particularly harmful for children, and can slow or impair growth and cause learning and behavioral problems. 

“Each year hundreds of Vermont kids are poisoned by lead,” Mark Levine, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, said in a statement. “This program shows how we can work together as a state to reduce lead exposure and keep our children healthier. Parents and caregivers can take comfort in knowing that the water their kids are consuming at their school and child care is now safer.”

From June 2019 through December 2021, schools and state officials tested more than 15,000 taps, according to the report. Of those, one out of five had levels above the state’s standard. 

Seventy-five percent of schools and 14% of non-school based child care facilities found lead in at least one tap, and 21% of all taps needed to be replaced, according to the report. The highest concentration of lead identified was 25,000 parts per billion. 

Joel FitzGerald, director of facilities and grounds at Mount Abraham Unified School District, said until the new law was implemented, the district tested the general water supply for lead, but not individual taps. Mount Abraham Union High School, for example, receives municipal water, so school officials would take their test sample from the water main. 

“Everybody's well was tested, and everything looked good,” he said. “But then, once the water went through the fixtures and sat overnight in the drinking fountains, that's where you were getting the high ratings — the fixtures themselves.”

Most of the fixes were “easy,” according to the report, requiring a mere fixture replacement, rather than a more complicated plumbing adjustment. As many as 90% of the fixtures that needed to be replaced cost less than $500. 

State officials sent test kits to schools, and school officials sent the samples back for testing. State funding helped cover the cost of replacing taps, such as sink faucets, water fountains and bottle fillers. Schools also installed filters for some taps, or took the fixtures offline entirely. 

The effort involved the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department for Children and Families, along with the Department of Health. 

Despite some labor and supply shortages, FitzGerald said the process at Mount Abraham district schools was smooth — and necessary, given that the high school and Bristol Elementary School had a number of taps that tested above the state standard. As opposed to other schools in the district, those two hadn’t been renovated recently. 

When the law was passed, FitzGerald was worried that the state wouldn’t provide the school with enough support to get the job done well. 

“I think the state gets kudos on this one,” he said. “They did a nice job.”

The district has since invested in more water bottle fillers, which were the type of fixture for which the statewide testing found the least amount of lead contamination.

FitzGerald pointed to the cancer-causing PCBs found in Burlington High School, where he was a director for nine years. The contamination eventually prompted the school to change locations. 

“We're always concerned, but we're always trying to do the best job that we can,” he said. “You're trying to keep kids as safe as you can every day … it’s not always easy.”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.


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