Lead contamination report card gives Mountain West states failing grades
An environmental group recently released its grades for how states are handling lead contamination in school drinking water — and half of the states in the Mountain West states are failing.
Environment America’s “Get The Lead Out” report card, published last month, gives an F to Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming because they have no laws or requirements to address lead contamination in school drinking water.
“Unfortunately, over decades, we have built our water delivery systems , including in our schools , with a potent toxic substance called lead,” said John Rumpler, the clean water program director at Environment America. “It's in pipes. It's in plumbing. It's in faucets. It's in fountains. This lead has serious effects on the way that our kids learn and grow and behave.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics says "there is no identified threshold or safe level of lead in blood" and recommends that school drinking fountains not exceed lead concentrations of 1 part per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency's "action level" for lead in drinking water is 15 ppb. The federal limit for bottled water is 5 ppb.
Colorado led the region with a C+ grade, primarily for requiring the immediate shut-off of taps and public disclosure when lead concentrations are above 5 ppb. But these rules only apply to K-5 schools and child care facilities not covered by federal law.
Montana earned a C partly because its Department of Environmental Quality adopted a rule requiring schools to test all taps used for drinking and cooking every three years.
Utah got a C- for its new 5 ppb “test and fix” law for all schools and child care facilities. The state requires some form of remediation, but not necessarily the immediate shut-off of taps.
“So this is not a partisan issue here,” Rumpler said, noting there are "a whole set of states in the Mountain West that are still doing next to nothing," including red states like Idaho and bluer states like New Mexico."
The water crisis in Flint, Mich., prompted Environment America’s first lead report card, in 2017. It's expanded since, and 2023 is the first time the group has given grades to all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
While most Mountain West states have testing programs, they are voluntary and do not get to the root cause, Rumpler said.
“You can test all you want, but if you're not actually fixing the problem or preventing the problem, that isn't going very far,” he said.
Plus, Rumpler said , lead testing is not always accurate.
“Lead is highly variable in water,” he said. “So you could take a water sample and it might not have 5 parts per billion or more of lead that day.”
Washington, D.C., scored the highest grade for installing filters on every tap in schools, child care centers and public parks. Still, it only received a B+.
Rumpler said states are improving from past years, but they can do more.
“Any time you see a student improve from a failing grade to a C, we want to applaud that,” he said. “But we also want to encourage them to do more and do better.”
Rumpler urges more states to look into adding filters and replacing water fixtures at both schools and child care centers to limit lead contamination. Environment America released a toolkit to help families and school staff push for such measures.
“The real overall big jump that we'd like to see states take is not waiting for test results to confirm that our kids are drinking lead,” Rumpler said. “It would be better if ultimately we could get to the root of the problem.
"Let's not have a potent toxic substance in the water delivery system where our kids go to learn and play every day. We can do better.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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