Tests show lead levels an issue in many Montana schools

BILLING – Among Montana schools that have met the state program deadline, most have high levels of lead in school drinking water.

In early 2020, the state of Montana for the first time required all public schools to test their drinking water for lead. Schools had until December 31 of this year to take initial samples.

Now, two weeks before the deadline, 136 schools – only about a quarter – have sent in samples and, of those, 125 have had at least one device exceeding the state’s action level for lead, Yellowstone Public Radio reported.

Billings Superintendent Greg Upham, all 32 schools in Montana’s largest district have submitted their water samples for lab testing.

“In a school district our size, you can imagine the amount of fixtures and taps,” he said.

As in other Montana school districts, samples from Billings revealed that most schools had at least one device used for food and drinking water that exceeded state limits for lead content.

“Overall I was pretty happy,” Upham said. “I thought it would be more, but enough that in a school (district) of this size it’s still a problem for sure.

“It’s going to take us a while to replace them. “

The prevalence of lead-based plumbing in the United States came under public scrutiny in 2014 after a high-profile case in Flint, Michigan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning: long-term exposure can cause problems, including brain damage and developmental delays.

Montana announced its school testing program in January 2020, the same month the United States recorded its first case of COVID-19. Now, almost two years later, the state says most of Montana’s 560 schools still need to comply with program requirements.

In Belt, a town of about 500 people in central Montana just east of Great Falls, Superintendent Joe Gaylord said schools in his district had only recently submitted their samples.

“COVID has really taken all the energy to focus on it, and so the main things have kind of been put on the back burner,” he said. “But everyone somehow knew the deadline was approaching.”

Gaylord said the school district is awaiting the lab results.

“A lot of the piping has been replaced,” he said. “We have a few areas that have older pipelines so that would be where we would – we’re not very worried about having a problem, but it will be nice to know if we have one or not.”

The maximum allowable amount of lead in water in Montana is 5 parts per billion, the same concentration cap that the United States Food and Drug Administration has set for lead in bottled water. The state requires schools that exceed this limit to submit mitigation plans.

Caroline Pakenham with the Elevate climate action group co-authored a report examining how states are dealing with lead in school drinking water. She said most American schools were built before 1986, when the Safe Drinking Water Act set restrictions and the United States “used a lot of lead in our plumbing.”

Pakenham said mitigation strategies can range from installing water filters to the more expensive solution of replacing pipes.

“Schools with fewer resources will have a harder time mitigating the lead, and this directly affects the children they serve,” she said. “So if we are serious about protecting all children in all communities, regardless of their income or school district, we really need to provide financial resources to help these facilities address these sources of lead. “

Under the state’s program, schools are required to flush their pipes with water if it has been standing for more than three days. The state says installing filters is a viable way for schools to deal with devices with high lead levels.

Greg Montgomery is the senior school drinking water regulator in the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. He says the state is currently able to use US Environmental Protection Agency funding to cover sampling, but not mitigation.

“However, with the infrastructure bill that was passed… they added another five years to this program and they also changed the wording to allow us to use it for remediation and sampling,” he said. Montgomery said, “So this is an upcoming source of funding that will be available for schools.

The infrastructure bill includes more than $ 50 billion nationwide for clean water. Montgomery said the state could find out what his allocation will be in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, said Billings Superintendent Greg Upham, his schools are considering turning off or replacing devices tested beyond the state limit for lead.

“It’s like anything. You get something new and everyone panics including myself and then you start to tackle it, ”he said. “And so, it’s doable. I mean, it’s time and cost, for sure, but we’re working on it.

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