Vast majority of Georgia daycare centers, public schools skip state program to test for lead in water
In 2021, when Dade County Schools Superintendent Josh Ingle was in his first year on the job, his facilities manager came to him with an idea that seemed like a no-brainer: a program that would use federal funds to test his schools’ water fixtures for lead.
Previously, the district had paid a third-party business to test for lead, but Ingle decided to enroll all four of his district’s schools into the Clean Water for Georgia Kids program, which launched in 2021 and is available for free to schools and child care centers. The district received training videos and equipment on testing all of its sinks and water fountains.
“I mean, it’s a free opportunity to have your water tested, you know, and we deal with kids each and every day,” Ingle said. “My kids go to Dade County Schools. As a parent, I would want to know.”
Doctors say no amount of lead exposure is safe, and children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, as even small amounts can accumulate in the body and cause problems with brain development, leading to decreased intelligence and behavior problems.
Lead in water is not detectable by taste or smell, and unlike other contaminants, it should be tested for at the tap rather than the water source or treatment plant. That’s because lead can enter the water through corroding pipes once it has already been treated.
When the results came back for Dade County, it was mostly good news. Most of the drinking fountains had no detectable lead, though some had slightly elevated levels. A few kitchen sinks and faucets in employee break rooms had higher levels, with one Davis Elementary kitchen hand-washing sink standing out at 13.47 parts per billion. Results for all participating schools and child care centers are available online.
None of Dade County’s samples reached the 15 parts per billion threshold that requires immediate action.
Statewide, 6.1% of fixtures tested were above 15 parts per billion, while 18% met the best possible result of less than .1 parts per billion. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that lead in water not exceed 1 part per billion, and 59.5% of fixtures in Georgia schools and daycares meet this goal.
Ingle said he followed recommendations for fixtures with higher levels, which include installing new filters and flushing faucets each morning, which can remove any lead that may have built up overnight.
His only gripe with the program is that the district is on the hook for about $600 for optional retesting of the fixtures with elevated levels, which he says is not a big deal in the long run. The federal grant funds do not cover retesting for samples with less than 15 parts per billion.
“We didn’t realize that we were going to have to pay for this retesting, which, I don’t care, I guess we assumed it would be free, but because we did not have any over that 15 parts per billion, then we had to pay, which is very minimal in the grand scheme of things,” Ingle said.
Less than 5% of Georgia daycare centers, public schools take part
Ingle said he’s glad to have a handle on the issue and to be able to show parents that the schools are taking lead safety seriously, but Dade County is in the minority.
Of the more than 2,200 Georgia public schools, only 91 have signed up since August of 2021. Only 118 of approximately 3,100 child care centers and 1,500 family child care learning homes have signed up.
Those participation rates are especially low when compared to North Carolina, where the program that became the model for Georgia’s launched in 2020. In that state, the program is required for daycare facilities, and nearly all of the state’s approximately 4,500 centers have signed up. In North Carolina, about 75% of fixtures returned less than 1 part per billion, and 2.3% were greater than 15 parts per billion.
Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning, or DECAL, set a goal of 500 facilities in the testing program’s first year.
“We had hoped for more, but it is on a voluntary basis,” said chief DECAL spokesman Reg Griffin. “We are continuing our outreach efforts to encourage programs to enroll.”
“We have continued our outreach efforts by emailing our programs and discussing the Lead Project in our Child Care Services newsletter sent to more than 4,400 licensed programs across the state,” he added. “We have also had a strong social media push and featured on our weekly podcast, DECAL Download.”
RTI Laboratories, the group partnering with the government to test the water samples, is also working to get the word out, says Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, an environmental health scientist and director of environmental health and water quality at RTI.
“We want to show facilities that this is something that can be done pretty easily at the individual facility level, and there’s really no better time than now to take advantage of this,” she said. “So we would love to hear from facilities that are on the fence about whether or not to sign up to see if there’s any additional support we can help to provide them to complete the testing. We are amenable to individual concerns and needs.”
Schools and daycare centers can enroll year-round at www.cleanwaterforuskids.org/georgia.
Some providers may incorrectly believe that they don’t need to test because their facility is newly built or because their water provider tests, she said.
Another concern may be that facilities will be stuck with a public record of elevated lead levels but no money to mitigate it. Redmon said some facilities may hesitate “because they want to make sure that they’re not joining something that’s voluntary, that they don’t need to do, that’s translating into more headaches for each facility.”
But she said most recommended fixes are free or low-cost, such as installing filters or flushing faucets every morning, and facilities could access funds for bigger fixes from the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021, she added.
On Monday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox announced $58 million in grant funding from the bill to pay for activities that remove sources of lead in drinking water.
“And what we’ve really found in North Carolina is that by providing information about participation and participating in the program and things being available online, that transparency has removed a lot of what would otherwise be perceived as hiding problems that are found at a school,” Redmon added.
Georgia gets F for protecting school drinking water
A February report from Environment America gave Georgia, along with most other states, an F for protecting drinking water in schools. The highest grade, a B+, went to Washington D.C.
The researchers note that Georgia does participate in Clean Water for Georgia Kids, but finds that only a small portion of programs take part, and adds that the state has no laws or regulations to address lead in school drinking water.
Last year, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill aimed at protecting kids from lead by lowering the threshold of lead in a child’s blood that would trigger state action, including testing and required fixes.
That’s a good measure, but even better would be to prevent kids from getting lead poisoning, Redmon said.
“Ideally, it’s best to stop exposure before it starts,” she said. “Blood lead testing is a reactive way to identify children that have already gotten lead exposure, and our goal is to stop that at the source so that there is less of a need to identify children that have blood lead poisoning and then the need to identify where that source is coming from.”
Schools that do not participate may be testing on their own or hiring out, Ingle said, but the Legislature requiring facilities to test could boost participation in the free program.
“Well, the gray area is, it’s not a requirement. It’s optional,” he said. “And some districts may not know that much about it. I know about it because our facilities director did a great job of pushing out the communications.”
“If the legislature pushed this, made it mandatory, obviously, it would definitely increase participation,” he added.
This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.