The Atlanta Public Schools’ recent decision to test for lead in school buildings has brought to light some of the issues in the process of lead testing and how we decide drinking water is safe. Here are three big problems:
- APS should’ve tested sooner.
Like Flint, Mich., some of Atlanta’s water mains and pipes date back to the early 1900s. Although the water crisis in Flint was declared a public health emergency in October 2015 and APS cited the emerging water crises around the U.S. as their reason for testing, APS waited until the end of the school year to test the water, extending the time for potential lead exposure for students.
Additionally, The New York Times addressed the many health and environmental issues caused by aging pipes in a 2010 article, “Toxic Waters,” mentioning Atlanta as one of the nation’s cities that was trying to balance the cost of water system repairs with their necessity. APS should’ve tested sooner considering the age of its schools and pipes, especially after the Flint water crisis.
- The method of “fixing” and retesting schools does not necessarily address the problem.
In Flint, the lead-contaminated water came from the dilapidated pipes of a century ago. However, Atlanta Public Schools considers its water “clean” after flushing the system or providing “upgrades such as replacing faucets and other plumbing fixtures” in the schools.
Flushing the system helps reduce exposure at the time directly after flushing, but it is not a long-term solution and although faucets produced before 1997 (as well as some to produced to date) contain lead, only time will tell if replacing them will be a sufficient and long-lasting fix to the lead problem. The EPA lists old pipes as equal causes of lead exposure as old fixtures. The long-term solution has to come in the form of replacing pipes and water mains, which is costly and would have to be done by the City of Atlanta.
- The amount of “acceptable” lead is still unacceptable, according to the EPA, AAP and CDC.
Atlanta Public Schools has been testing and retesting any water in fountains or sinks with lead levels higher than 15 parts per billion. However, the EPA and CDC both agree that there is no safe level of lead. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also agrees that the level at which lead exposure negatively affects children hasn’t been measured and, “despite the dramatic reductions in blood lead levels, lead toxicity accounts for an estimated total loss of 23 million IQ points among a 6-year cohort of contemporary US children.” Lead levels at 15 parts per billion can still have serious health repercussions.
What will the future hold?
There is still a lot of progress for Atlanta Public Schools to ensure that students, teachers and school staff are safe from potentially contaminated water, but the fact of the matter is that Georgia (as well as most of the country) is still full of old pipes and old buildings. There is currently no federal or Georgia state law demanding that water is checked for lead.
It is estimated that only about 70 percent of children on Medicaid are checked for lead exposure annually despite the law requiring that all children on medicaid receive annual exams and treatment for lead exposure. Making progress to eliminate lead exposure and poisoning will require the collaboration of many organizations and government bodies. Hopefully the governing bodies will catch up with the EPA’s recommendations before it’s too late.