Lead in Atlanta-area school water: Health dangers “under-appreciated”

In recent months, Atlanta-area school districts began testing school drinking water for lead and making repairs to sinks and water fountains with especially high levels.

But public health experts say those tests and repairs are no guarantee that drinking the water in local schools is risk-free.

That’s because Atlanta, DeKalb and Fulton schools are only trying to reduce lead at sources where levels are above 15 parts per billion. Fifteen parts per billion is the level at which the Environmental Protection Agency requires water utilities, like Atlanta Watershed, to take action.

That level is based on balancing the cost of repairs against potential health consequences. It's not focused solely on what's safe for children. Even low levels of lead in blood can result in behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, slowed growth and other problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a much lower limit for school water fountains, 1 part per billion.

“The health harm especially for kids in a school where they’re there to learn, that’s being under-appreciated,” said Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany.

“Lead’s a dangerous thing and most low-concentration action is on the brain and on learning and memory, and that’s not something you want to have kids exposed to.”

In Atlanta, initial tests this spring and summer found 46 schools and other buildings with one or more sinks or fountains above 15 parts per billion. In most of those buildings, one or two sources were above that limit, with lead levels ranging from just over the limit to more than 30 times higher.

The district made repairs at some sources and at others let the water run to reduce the amount of lead coming from the tap. That pushed tested lead levels at all but one building — the now-vacant East Lake Elementary — below 15 parts per billion.

But fountains and sinks at many of those 46 buildings still show some lead, ranging from just over 1 part per billion to close to 15. Relatively low levels of lead were also found at dozens of other schools where no repairs were done because initial test results fell below the 15 parts per billion limit.

The results don't show how the lead got into the water. Atlanta Watershed's 2015 water quality report shows most sources the utility tested across the city had lead levels below 2.5 parts per billion, but at least one source had a lead level of 51 parts per billion.

DeKalb and Fulton schools began testing this fall. DeKalb found levels above 15 parts per billion in one more sources at 15 of the schools tested so far; Fulton found levels above 15 parts per billion in five schools tested to date.

It’s hard to say how the lead levels found in local schools affect children.

The greatest risk to children is when they're young, said Dr. Jennifer Lowry, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Environmental Health. Factors like how much water children drink at school and how much lead they're exposed to outside school — from sources like lead paint or lead-contaminated soil — are important too.

Being exposed to more lead at school “adds to the effects of everything else,” Lowry said.

“It’s just one more thing that is going to prevent them from being the best person they can be … it’s not going to do anything good.”

Based on the school test results, at least, Atlanta is “not Flint,” said University of Georgia professor of environmental health science Marsha Black, “but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be concerned about it.”

No law requires testing water for lead in Georgia schools or day care centers. There’s no law requiring Georgia schools to shut off taps if any amount of lead is found.

And getting to zero lead in every water source in schools, homes and businesses isn’t realistic, said Kathy Nguyen of Cobb County Water System, a past chairwoman of the Georgia section of the American Water Works Association. Atlanta is “on the right track” in testing and making repairs, she said.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has said the water in Atlanta schools is safe to drink. But in response to questions she admitted the guidelines about how much lead is acceptable in schools’ water aren’t “perfectly clear.”

“We’re doing the best we can knowing what we know,” she said.

In response to questions about whether water in Fulton schools with lead levels below 15 parts per billion was safe to drink, Fulton Executive Director of Facility Services Joseph Clements said, “The guidance we have from the EPA is that (15 parts per billion is) an acceptable level.” DeKalb County officials didn’t respond to questions about whether water with that level of lead was safe to drink.

The Atlanta school district plans to continue to monitor lead levels and flush taps before students and staff return to school after long breaks. The district has no immediate plans to make additional repairs, but Carstarphen hasn’t ruled out future action.

“I don’t see where we would deliberately not try to do more,” she said.