Lead in American drinking water supplies was largely off the public radar for many years until the Flint, Michigan water crisis of 2016 revealed just how fragile our drinking water supplies really are. While the crisis in Flint was terrifying, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources now claims that the water quality in Flint is now the same or better than most cities around the country. Despite those assurances, the crisis was enough for most Flint residents to install their own water filter for lead removal after having lost trust in government agencies.

While most of us like to tell ourselves that “it can’t happen here” and believe that our water is just fine, a new study published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has many Americans wondering just how safe their children’s water is. The study, titled “Lead Testing of School Drinking Water Would Benefit from Improved Federal Guidance,” found that only 43% of school districts across the nation tested for lead in the last twelve months.

The horrifying flip side to that statistic is that the remaining 57% of school districts either have not tested for lead in the last twelve months, or did not know if they had tested for lead. That means millions of school children across the United States could be at a high risk of drinking lead-contaminated water and not even know it. The report points out that as of 2017, only 8 states require schools to regularly test for lead. Furthermore, there are currently no federal laws requiring schools to test their drinking water for lead. 

In a press release, lawmakers on Capitol Hill in the Committee on Energy and Commerce have called the report’s findings “disturbing and unacceptable.” According to the GAO’s report, part of the fault lies in the fact that the EPA and school districts have not found adequate ways of sharing information and coordinating on their testing protocols:

Many school districts reported a lack of familiarity with EPA’s guidance, and their familiarity varied by region of the country. Education and EPA do not regularly collaborate to support state and school district efforts on lead in drinking water, despite agreeing to do so in a 2005 memorandum of understanding. Such collaboration could encourage testing and ensure that more school districts will have the necessary information to limit student and staff exposure to lead.

The GAO concludes the study with seven recommendations for both schools and the EPA, mostly concerning information sharing both within the EPA’s Office of Water and between the office and schools. The study also recommends that the Department of Education “should improve the usability of Education’s websites to ensure that the states and school districts can more easily find and access federal guidance to address lead in school drinking water.” Still, with the CDC reporting that over half a million children in America have unhealthy levels of lead in their blood, it seems that improved websites and communication don’t quite go far enough in addressing this issue.

Are improved channels of communication the solution to this unsettling issue, or do we need a massive overhaul of our national water supply? Maybe school systems should invest in lead filters for every fountain, or maybe children should start carrying water purification straws to school? Above all else, maybe we should start taking water safety seriously in this country. We’ll thank ourselves later.

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