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Iowa schools test for lead in drinking water

UI program offers free testing and remediation up to $10K

Amina Grant, a third-year Ph.D. environmental engineering student at the University of Iowa, collects a sample from a classroom water fountain during a Nov. 23 retest for lead levels at Strawberry Hill Elementary School in Anamosa on Saturday. All faucets and fountains in the school were tested earlier this year, and the one faucet that tested above federal standards had the pipe and fixture replaced. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Amina Grant, a third-year Ph.D. environmental engineering student at the University of Iowa, collects a sample from a classroom water fountain during a Nov. 23 retest for lead levels at Strawberry Hill Elementary School in Anamosa on Saturday. All faucets and fountains in the school were tested earlier this year, and the one faucet that tested above federal standards had the pipe and fixture replaced. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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When Anamosa’s Strawberry Hill Elementary School was built in 1955, copper and galvanized metal already had replaced lead for most water pipes.

Still, as one of Anamosa’s oldest schools, serving preschool through fourth-grade students, Strawberry Hill was an ideal place to start with a program to test for lead in school drinking water.

“It’s an older building with older plumbing,” Superintendent Larry Hunt said. “We wanted to be proactive.”

National concerns about lead poisoning from water have increased since 2014 when researchers discovered tens of thousands of Flint, Mich., residents had been exposed to the toxin when the city switched water supplies and river water eroded the aging lead pipes.

Other cities, including Newark, N.J., and Milwaukee, Wis., have faced similar concerns about lead in drinking water.

When children are exposed to lead, either through peeling paint, dust or water, it can damage their brains and nervous system, slow growth and development, and cause learning, behavior, hearing and speech problems, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

In 2017, the most recent year for which the Iowa Department of Public Health has statistics on child lead exposure in the state, 349 children under age 6, or about .54 percent of those tested, had blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter, the level at which the state provides services. This is much lower than the 3.2 percent of kids under 6 that had actionable blood lead levels in 2000, data show.

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Although lead-based paint is the biggest factor for high lead levels in children, water consumption could contribute, on average, 10 to 20 percent of a child’s total lead intake, according to a 2008 study by Richard Rabin in the American Journal of Public Health. For infants who drink formula, often made with tap water, water consumption could contribute 40 to 60 percent of lead overall, Rabin reported.

Statewide lead testing

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources advises school drinking fountains with lead levels that exceed .02 milligrams per liter be taken out of service and replaced. But new guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say “there is no safe level of lead for children.”

The EPA has allocated $460,000 of a national grant to Iowa for voluntary lead testing of school water supplies.

The state hasn’t received the money yet, but the plan is to invite school districts and child care centers to apply for testing, said Melissa Walker, school nurse consultant for the Iowa Department of Education.

Priority would be given to the oldest schools, as well as schools and centers with the youngest children, Walker said. The EPA grant does not cover remediation if lead is found.

“If they do have an actionable level, there is a manual for every state for funding sources available in their state,” Walker said. “We’re exploring funding streams here” in Iowa.

Data from the voluntary tests would be available to the public.

University of Iowa program

The University of Iowa has offered free lead testing of elementary school drinking water since last spring through the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, which provides $10,000 per school for testing and remediation.

Having money to fix potential problems is critical to the program, said Dave Cwiertny, center director and a civil and environmental engineering professor.

“If it’s just voluntary and there’s no money to assist them (schools) with fixing the problem, nobody wants to look,” he said of lead tests. “So while it limits the number of schools we can work with at any given time because we have to be mindful of our budget, we have to make the commitment that we’re with these schools through the process.”

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The UI program receives $400,000 to $500,000 a year in funding from fertilizer taxes and pesticide registration fees.

Strawberry Hill Elementary was one of the first schools to volunteer for the UI program. Researchers gathered samples from 200 locations, including drinking fountains, hand-washing stations and food prep sinks.

They take the first sample right after turning on a water source that hasn’t been used for 18 hours. This is the water kids would drink first thing in the morning if they went to a drinking fountain. Researchers then collect a second sample after letting the water run for 30 seconds to test water from pipes deeper in the building, Cwiertny said.

The samples are tested for lead and copper at the State Hygienic Laboratory.

Only one Strawberry Hill test site, a rarely-used faucet, had actionable levels for lead and copper. The UI paid to replace that faucet as well as drinking fountains in an older part of the school that serves the youngest children. Last weekend, researchers went back to retest the site. Results should be available in a week or two.

Anamosa officials were glad for the UI support, but were prepared to spend district money if major renovations were needed, Hunt said.

The UI also has done lead testing at Midland Elementary in Oxford Junction and three schools in Keokuk. It will begin testing soon at three schools in Dubuque.

Schools interested in having lead testing should contact the UI center at cheec@uiowa.edu or (319) 335-4550.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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