Many metro-east schools lag behind their St. Louis counterparts in testing for lead in their drinking water.
Out of 19 metro-east school districts that responded to a request for comment on the issue, only four said they had plans to test their water: O’Fallon Community Consolidated School District 90, Wood River Community High School District 14, Marissa Community School District 40 and Freeburg Community Consolidated School District 77. Others schools replied that they did not test; some schools had done so in the past, but it had been years ago.
Illinois does not require schools to test for lead in their drinking water. Not all schools need to be tested, as newer facilities were built without lead solder or service lines, the pipe that connects water mains to buildings.
But a recent report on water lead levels in the St. Louis school district could encourage metro-east districts to follow its lead.
Missouri does not require schools to test their water for lead, either, but the St. Louis Public School District hired Collinsville-based Environmental Consultants to conduct a system-wide drinking water check in July.
It found that out of 797 tests, 45 were above 15 parts per billion, identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an elevated level. Another 43 tests surpassed 10 parts per billion, a stricter internal guideline that the school board had set to further protect its students. In all, 32 of 72 schools were affected.
After preliminary results were released two weeks ago, schools disabled low-testing drinking fountains and marked them up with yellow tape.
Testing cost about $70,000, according to Jeff Faust, who founded the company in 2003. He said the St. Louis school system has been a real “catalyst” in the region. Last week, the company’s phone has been ringing constantly with calls from other schools — a half-dozen Friday morning alone — that wanted to know more about their own water quality.
“To me, that’s an absolute necessity,” Faust said of water testing.
‘You just have to be proactive’
No amount of lead is safe, particularly for small children, who are affected by the neurotoxin more powerfully than adults. Lead exposure can lead to developmental problems, among other issues.
Worry about drinking water contamination reached the national spotlight in 2015 when high levels were detected in Flint, Michigan, though it is not a concerning problem in the metro-east.
In addition to St. Louis schools, “recent tests in Chicago Public Schools have shown elevated levels of lead in more than 20 elementary schools,” according to the Illinois Environmental Council, an advocacy group. In Illinois, municipalities are required to check their water once every three years, but schools, on the other hand, are not required to test their water.
“(The) Safe Drinking Water Act and Lead and Copper Rule do not include a specific testing protocol for schools, hospitals, etc., that are connected to a community water supply,” Kim Biggs, spokeswoman for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in an email.
The current interest in water lead tests has been around for about a decade, Faust said, but he developed his own test a decade before that. It’s coupled with the EPA’s “Tools for Schools Action Kit,” which guides schools on how improve the air quality in their schools, which is encouraged by the state.
Faust’s first test was performed in 1997, in the Belle Valley school district, he said.
Lou Obernuefemann, Belle Valley’s current superintendent, wrote in an email that “water testing (was) completed prior to moving into the building,” which was in January 2012. “Test results indicated no problems.”
You just have to be proactive.
Smithton Superintendent Susan Homes on testing for lead
John Bute, superintendent of Central School District 104 in O’Fallon, which had a water lead test in wrote: “We have not tested the water here for lead in the time that I have been here. To our knowledge, this has not been a concern or issue.”
Art Ryan, of Cahokia District 187, wrote that “the district does not do an independent water check for lead, but I spoke with Cahokia Commonfields Water Co. and they do checks for lead and the water is within EPA standards.”
Although Illinois American tests water at its facilities, the utility is not responsible for water lead tests at schools, which are where the lead primarily enters the water. “We are not responsible for a school’s testing,” wrote Karen Cotton, the company’s spokeswoman, in an email.
Faust said that several metro-east schools have hired Environmental Consultants, including Smithton District 130 last year.
Smithton Superintendent Susan Homes first reached out to the company to check the air quality of one of the school’s modular classrooms. She noticed an odor, and there was a water leak from somewhere in the room. In addition, one of the air conditioners hadn’t worked in seven years, increasing the possibility of mold.
Homes, who was new to the district in 2013, couldn’t find any old records about any environmental tests of the room, so she thought it was a good idea to get a baseline study done. That way, if someone were to have an issue with the modular classroom in the future, she would know how bad the room had gotten.
“You just have to be proactive,” she said.
Homes had already worked with Faust’s company when she was in a different school system. The battery of tests, which it conducted in October, included a lead check of the school’s five drinking fountains and the water from a kitchen sink tap. No lead was found.
The price tag and the law
Although Smithton’s tests turned up nothing, Homes said the school has peace of mind.
Not only is testing done for students’ protection, it also lets teachers know about the environment they’re working in. Years ago, Faust said with regard to air-quality checks, “black debris was just black debris,” but today we know it’s mold. The same goes for testing drinking water, which has “been more and more of an observed concern” in the past 10 years, Faust said.
The testing regimen isn’t for everyone, however. For the Smithton school, Homes said it cost $3,900 for a baseline study and will cost $2,100 for twice-yearly checkups, the first one of which was in May — not an insignificant sum for cash-strapped schools.
Faust agreed, noting that it is easy for poorer schools to justify not getting their schools tested.
Soon, though, schools may not have a choice to ignore potential lead contamination in their water. A proposed bill requiring lead testing and mitigation recently passed the Illinois Senate.
The law would require the Illinois Department of Public Health to “establish a program to identify, in each school in the state, any lead service line or lead-bearing plumbing that is a lead hazard” and come up with a plan to fix those problems. The department declined to comment on pending legislation.
Any tests above 15 parts per billion, which is the current EPA standard, but 5 parts higher than the one set by the St. Louis school system in its recent study, would require schools to notify students’ legal guardians of the results and start the process toward remediation. Currently, if schools may surpass the action level, the EPA recommends replacing bad infrastructure only if a test reaches 20 ppb.
In any case, a water source with a test below that rate is only going to get worse, Faust said, and so the infrastructure behind it should be replaced at a lower level.
The bill would apply to schools built before 1987 — the year after use of lead in plumbing was banned — and it would require schools to test any “source of potable water” for drinking or cooking. In addition, the bill allows the Water Pollution Control Loan Program to fund replacing lead pipes and fixtures in schools.
The bill passed the Illinois Senate 48 to 5. State Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, voted against it, but, upon rereading the bill recently, he said he was “surprised” to find he had done so.
“Those bills come forward so quick,” he said, remembering that there was one bill from the session that he accidentally voted “no” on. He said he would have to read the bill more closely, but, given how he understood it on Friday, he would have voted in favor of it.
Faust thinks the legislation is a step in the right direction. Children spend eight hours a day at school, and for some, he said, it might be the only place where they have good, safe food and water.
“We have to be stewards of the children,” he said.