Is foot-dragging by Georgia’s schools gambling with students’ well-being?
A new analysis by Environment America grades Georgia an F when it comes to protecting children from lead in schools--but it’s not because the state isn’t trying to help.
Since 2021, Georgia has had a federally-funded partnership with RTI, an independent nonprofit research institute, to provide free lead testing of schools’ water.
But since the program’s launch in July 2021, just 85 of the state’s 5,400+ schools and child care centers have completed the testing.
The numbers are all the more stunning when considering how elevated lead exposure can affect children.
“Higher lead levels are associated with lower IQ and lower educational performance, and a higher likelihood of disruptive behavior both as a child and as an adult,” says pediatrician Dr. Robert Geller, medical director of the Georgia Poison Center. “There’s a higher risk of attention deficit disorder, a higher risk of being apprehended by police for aggressive actions or crime.”
Geller says it’s a neurotoxin at low levels, but asymptomatic until at a much higher level.
The effects of lead are cumulative.
Sarah Morris, Assistant Director of Facilities Services & Pupil Transportation at the Georgia Department of Education, has a suspicion of why schools’ leadership are reluctant to test the water for lead. It’s because they might find it--and while the tests are free, so far, there is no funding set aside for mitigation.
“I think the fear is, ‘Okay, I test, and I find something, and I don’t have the money to fix it,’” says Morris.
Yet Morris says sometimes the fixes are quite inexpensive.
“Some systems are scared: ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s the piping. There’s no way we can afford that.’ But sometimes it’s just a fixture and they just swap out the fixture,” she says.
Jennifer Redmon with RTI confirms that.
“Things like replacing those faucet fixtures and adding and maintaining a certified water filter could be lower-cost solutions,” says Redmon.
In Georgia, the testing is voluntary. But in North Carolina, the pilot program on which Georgia’s is based, it’s mandatory. Redmon says rather than fear or panic being the primary response when RTI tested North Carolina’s schools, the results were empowering.
“In almost all cases, even if you don’t have funding, you can stop exposure today. Children today will not be exposed to that tap. You can make a change, even if that means shutting the tap off and not using it.
“We seldom find that an entire facility doesn’t have usable taps,” continues Redmon. “So even if there’s not funding now, you know where students should be going for their drinking and cooking needs.”
Morris says some schools, perhaps shy about the fact that the RTI data is publicly accessible, have paid for private testing of their water for lead. But the private tests, she and Redmon point out, don’t test for lead to the tinier degree that RTI does.
“There’s no safe level of lead,” says Redmon. “We really need to be identifying and pinpointing it as close to that zero level as possible to make sure we’re truly eliminating it from our children’s bodies.
“We test down to 0.1 part per billion, which is 10 times lower than the 1 part per billion American Academy of Pediatrics reference level,” Redmon explains. “Many utilities and laboratories are detecting it at 3 or 5 parts per billion--30 to 50 times higher. So when you get that report back, you think, ‘Oh, good, there’s no lead,’ when really there might be 50 times higher than our detection limit.”
Redmon says some people tend to believe that because their local school is of newer construction, they’re lead-free. But she points out that even new facilities are still hooked up to water lines which may connect to older pipes--pipes that have once-allowable higher lead levels in them.
“You can get a free test that’ll test much further than the ones that are being paid for,” Asst. Director Morris says.
There are even ways that families or classes can help with the voluntary testing. RTI’s results come back in about two weeks.
In addition to getting answers, bragging rights come into play. The schools and child centers can not only show parents their proactive lead testing results--assuring families that their children’s health and safety are top of mind--but the steps they’ve taken to mitigate the lead.
As a mother with her oldest child soon starting school, Morris admits she was surprised to learn about the lead-in-water question mark hanging over Georgia’s drinking and cooking tap water, and how the drastic effects of lead exposure can pile up in a child’s system year after year.
“It definitely opened my eyes,” she says.
Morris hopes the Environment American analysis that Georgia is among the states failing to protect children from lead in schools is a wake-up call for other parents and school districts alike.
An effort is underway to try to get some of the federal funds earmarked for fixes, too.
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