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Lead-Testing School Water: When Should Parents Worry?

Illinois Department of Public Health
The Illinois Department of Public Health is playing a key role in enforcing the new state lead-testing law.

No parent wants to hear that their kid’s school has lead in its water, because no amount of lead exposure is safe for young children. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to panic.

That’s the message from health experts as elementary schools across Illinois—including Unit 5 and District 87—test their drinking water for elevated lead levels. Ten schools in Unit 5 and District 87 were flagged for lead levels higher than the state’s parental notification threshold, triggering letters to parents in August and September. The districts are now working to fix the problem.

“Should you pull your kid out of that school or take other drastic steps? Absolutely not. That is not the message we’re sending,” said Justin DeWitt, environmental health chief engineer for the Illinois Department of Public Health. “Parents need to ask questions and work affirmatively with their districts about what their plans are to address any levels of lead in the drinking water in their schools.”

IDPH has been working with schools and their consultants since a new state law went into effect requiring the testing at older elementary schools and day cares. Lead poisoning is especially dangerous for children age 6 and under, harming brain development and even physiological growth with high enough exposure.

In District 87, elevated lead levels were found at eight possible drinking sources in four schools: Bent, Irving, Oakland, and Sheridan schools. District 87 has shut off each of the water sources and will address them by replacing fixtures, adding filters, and other changes.

In Unit 5, lead was found in water from sinks (not drinking fountains) at Fairview, Colene Hoose, Hudson, Parkside, Sugar Creek, and Towanda elementary schools. Those lead levels dropped to non-detectable levels once the water in the faucets had run for several minutes (a flush), the district said.

The state’s threshold for parental notification is five parts per billion, lower than the federal government’s drinking water standards (15 parts per billion). That difference was pointed out by District 87 in its letter to affected parents in August.

DeWitt says that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, since the federal threshold is focused on when a water supplier has to take corrective action. It’s not a health-based standard, he said.

“The only (number) that really means much of anything is zero,” DeWitt told GLT’s Sound Ideas. “Any level of lead, you should be concerned.”

The new state law was championed by Illinois environmental groups, the Illinois attorney’s general office, and IDPH. That included the Illinois Environmental Council, led by executive director Jennifer Walling.

Illinois as a whole has a high number of lead pipes moving water within communities, and the problem has been a concern for decades, Walling said.

“With the crisis in Flint, there is an increased public awareness of the ability of lead pipes to contribute lead into the drinking water we have,” she said. “There was the public will to really do something about it.”

So what should parents do?

Like DeWitt, Walling said parents should get engaged with their schools and encourage them to replace fixtures and embrace proper flushing protocols that could help mitigate the problem.

“It’s not an enormous freak-out, but we should work to reduce lead as much as possible in our schools,” Walling said.

Ryan Denham's full interview with Justin DeWitt

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.