Lead in school drinking water a concern as Iowa schools reopen

University of Iowa offers free testing for elementary schools

A school bus. (Caitlin Yamada/The Union)
A school bus. (Caitlin Yamada/The Union)

Drinking fountains have been off limits in many public places, including schools, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before Iowa schools reopen for full-time in-person learning — whenever than can be done safely — University of Iowa engineers want officials to properly flush drinking fountains, water bottle filling stations and kitchen sinks so lead and copper from aging pipes doesn’t get into drinking water.

“When water stagnates in pipes, problems arise,” said David Cwiertny, a UI environmental engineering professor and director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination. “As a lot of these schools go back online and allow use of those fountains, there may be increased problems with lead and copper.”

The center has offered free lead testing of elementary school drinking water sources since 2019.

The program, which offers up to $10,000 per school for testing and remediation, provided services to 10 Iowa schools before going on hiatus in March because many schools did not have students in the buildings and were not using drinking fountains.

The testing program will resume in 2021 when more school districts ask to participate.

Cwiertny said there is a need to educate building administrators about the right way to flush water systems to avoid drawing contaminated water further into the building.

“Generally, I would recommend starting from the lowest level in the building, closest to where the water enters the building through the service line,” he said. “Then, outlets should be flushed as you move away from where the water enters and then up to other floors.”


Cwiertny contributed to more detailed advice from the Center for Plumbing Safety at Purdue University and American Water Works Association.

The UI’s Get the Lead Out campaign seeks to raise awareness about the dangers of lead exposure, which can damage children’s brains and nervous systems, slow growth and development and cause learning, behavior, hearing and speech problems.

Michelle Scherer, a civil and environmental engineering professor, said one in five Iowans is born with elevated lead levels and 65,000 Iowans drink water with lead levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s safe standards.

Another problem is what the standard should be for “safe” lead exposure.

While the EPA’s action level is 15 parts per billion, the World Health Organization says 9 ppb, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s standard for bottled water is 5 ppb and the American Academy of Pediatrics says lead in drinking water should be no more than 1 ppb.

The UI’s priorities include increasing testing of home water supplies, digitally mapping lead service lines and promoting “filter first” legislation that would allow schools and other public places to put water filters on high-use fountains to buy time for larger infrastructure upgrades.

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