New EPA rule requires lead testing of school water

Water utilities must work to replace lead service lines

A piece of the old lead pipe is seen that a construction crew was replacing with a copper pipe to the new water main in
A piece of the old lead pipe is seen that a construction crew was replacing with a copper pipe to the new water main in Chicago on Feb. 23, 2016. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

For the first time, water utilities will be required to test the drinking water at schools and child care centers for lead, which can damage children’s brains and nervous systems, slow growth and cause learning, behavior, hearing and speech problems.

The change is part of long-awaited revisions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule, published Dec. 22.

“A community water system will have to sample 20 percent of the school and licensed child care facilities in their service area each year over five years,” said David Cwiertny, a University of Iowa environmental engineering professor and director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination. “Hopefully, they will have sampled everybody in those five years. This will fill the hole in the existing lead and copper rule.”

The rule that had been in place since 1991, with only minor revisions, came under attack in 2014 when Flint, Mich., residents started getting sick from lead in drinking water. The source of the lead was from corroded lead pipes and service lines.

The new rule, which would go into effect in late 2023 or early 2024, says if lead in public water supplies exceeds 10 parts per billion, municipalities must start replacing lead service lines and study how to treat the corrosion problem.

If there is a future overage of the standard, a city or other municipality must implement the treatment approach immediately, the EPA reported.

Cedar Rapids has added a low concentration of zinc orthophosphate to its water since the 1990s to control lead corrosion and samples water at 53 locations every year, Amy Knudsen, utilities water quality specialist, said in an email.

But the new rule will require the city to re-evaluate its corrosion-control program and do a service-line inventory, Knudsen said. The goal is to replace all lead service lines over time.

Cedar Rapids has been preparing for the changes by getting lists of schools and child care centers for future testing and education, she said.

Under the new rule, community water systems must test five water sites, such as a drinking fountain or sink, at each elementary school and two sites at a child care center.

That’s still not enough, Cwiertny said.

“I fear that schools will not understand this, get their few data points, and think their work is done and their water is safe,” he said. “That is not the case without more expanded testing.”

Cwiertny leads a UI program that offers free lead testing of elementary school drinking water sources, with UI staff and students testing every water site in a building. The program offers up to $10,000 per school for testing and remediation.

The EPA last year allocated $460,000 of a national grant to Iowa for voluntary lead testing of school water supplies. It’s unclear how that program, put on hold until 2021 because of COVID-19, fits with the new lead and copper rule requirements.

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