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Analysis Finds Pervasive Lead Contamination in Schools

By Abe Scarr
State Director

Illinois PIRG Education fund is releasing new analysis today documenting pervaisive lead contamination in schools. We're also releasing a new toolkit that parents can access for advice on lead exposure and mitigation.

The analysis was done, and the following blog post written, by our Summer Intern Lexi Oliva, a student at Northwestern. Thanks Lexi for your great work!

Analysis Finds Pervasive Lead Contamination in Schools

78% of a sample of 155 schools in the suburban Cook County School District tested positive for a lead concentration of 2 ppb or higher in at least 1 of their water fixtures.

Introduction

The new school year is upon us, with children and families anxious and excited about what this year will bring. Unfortunately, despite efforts to ensure that schools are safe and healthy spaces, many students will be exposed to unsafe levels of lead in drinking water at school. To begin sizing up the problem, Illinois PIRG Education Fund used newly available data to perform a first-of-its-kind analysis of lead contamination in school water fixtures. In reviewing test results from 155 schools in suburban Cook County, we found 78% of schools contained at least one fixture with lead contamination levels of 2 parts per billion (ppb) or higher.

Background

This issue is not new to Illinois. After appalling reports of high lead concentrations in water surfaced in cities such as New York City, Boston, and of course, Flint, Michigan, Chicago residents began questioning the water they once assumed safe.

Lead in drinking water can result in a number of health risks such as harm to brain development and the nervous system. According to the CDC, heightened lead exposure can result in higher concentrations in blood and affect virtually every system in the body. Exposure to lead can inhibit growth and development, damage the nervous and brain system, and can result in hearing, speech, learning, and behavioral problems.

There is no safe level of lead. In fact, medical researchers estimate that more than 24 million children in America today risk losing IQ points due to low levels of lead. ADHD, anxiety and depression are also linked to exposure of even very low levels of lead.

A state law passed in January of 2017 requires testing for lead in Illinois schools built prior to 1987 within the 2017 year. Schools built between 1987 and 2000 are required to have tested by the end of 2018. While many school districts have submitted their test results to  the Illinois Department of Public Health, the aggregated data has not been published, so the public and policymakers have not been able to see the scope of lead contamination of schools’ water in Illinois. That is why we sought and analyzed the data as soon as we could.

Analysis

Illinois PIRG Education Fund acquired all the lead testing data the Illinois Department of Public Health had as of August 17, 2018 through a Freedom of Information Act Request. Because the Department has not compiled the data into a single dataset, we received the data in the form of thousands of individual files, making comprehensive analysis challenging.

To begin our analysis, we chose to focus on suburban Cook County Schools, in part, to counter the misperception that lead in drinking water is primarily a problem in urban neighborhoods. This data includes 155 public and non-public schools in suburban Cook County. This data was compiled from hundreds of Excel spreadsheets and PDF documents, some of which include detailed reports and supplementary letters to the schools in question.

Some schools re-tested specific fixtures, following the initial July testing, in order to reflect changes they made in their system. This analysis focuses on the initial results from 2017 in order to remain consistent, as very few schools re-tested all their fixtures, or even just a few, and there is little information provided as to what measures were taken to bring lead levels down.

Findings

Our analysis of lead data from 155 public and non-public schools in suburban schools shows that unsafe levels of lead in drinking water are widespread.

78% of the 155 schools included in this data set contained levels of lead of 2 ppb or higher in at least one of their water fixtures.

This data includes two sets of data: samples taken from the “first draw,” to test for immediate lead concentrations, and samples taken after a “flush,” which essentially just lets the water run for 30 seconds to a few minutes, although some schools only included “first draw” data.

Of the 155 schools tested at the 2 ppb threshold, for the first draw:

  • 13 schools had at least 50% of their water fixtures test above threshold.

  • 59 schools had at least 25% of their water fixtures test above threshold.

  • 97 schools had at least 10% of their water fixtures test above threshold.

While testing did not require that schools report levels of lead if less than 2 ppb, some schools reported on testing for trace amounts of lead of 0.1 ppb or higher. One hundred percent of the 39 schools in this sample had detected lead in at least one of their fixtures on either first or second draw.

Of the 39 schools that included these results of 0.1 ppb or higher for the first draw:

  • 21 schools tested positive for lead above this threshold at 50%, or more, of their fixtures.

  • 31 schools tested positive for lead above this threshold at 25%, or more, of their fixtures.

  • 36 schools tested positive for lead above this threshold at 10%, or more, of their fixtures.

Of the schools where testing data is available, there are results from fixtures that revealed lead at acutely high concentrations. Among others are:

  • Stuart R Paddock School, a public school in Palatine, contained water fixtures with lead concentrations as high as 128 ppb.

  • Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, a public school located in Hoffman Estates, has records of lead concentrations as high as 578 ppb.

It is critical to note that there may be discrepancies given the difficult nature of accurately measuring lead traces in water, as corrosion is highly variable and differs from sample to sample.

Measuring concentration of lead in water is very difficult, as lead can break off into smaller pieces, which is why flushing the water system for the second draw does not necessarily guarantee a lower concentration of lead and, in some cases, revealed levels of lead that were undetected in the initial first draw. It also demonstrates that flushing alone is not necessarily an effective remediation. For instance, among 26 schools that tested at a 2.0 ppb threshold for both a first and flush draw, 6 schools tested below threshold on their first draw, while testing above threshold on the second draw. This suggests that although many schools reported zero fixtures testing above threshold, there still may be lead present in their water system.

A Call to Action

As our analysis shows, lead contamination of school drinking water is a serious and pervasive problem.

Lead poisoning in schools is an issue no parent or administrator should take lightly, as schools should offer a safe environment for their students rather than one that puts them in danger. Parents expect that their children are safe while in school.

Thankfully, the Illinois Department of Public Health is requiring all schools that find any level of lead in their water take mitigating action. That is the right call, given that even low levels of lead can damage children’s health and development. Some schools have simply turned off outlets where test results confirmed contamination. This is an important first step and should be coupled with providing alternative sources of safe drinking water.

But given the inherently high variability in sampling results, it is likely that the confirmed instances of lead contamination are just the tip of the iceberg. Wherever there is lead in schools’ water delivery system - fountains, faucets, solder, etc. - there is a risk of contamination.

That is why the best way to protect Illinois children is to proactively “get the lead out” of schools’ water systems. While this might take time, one immediate step schools should take is to install certified filters on all faucets and fountains used for cooking or drinking.

As parents send their children back to school, they will want to know that their children’s water is safe.  But how can you interpret the test results from your local school? How do you know if your school is taking sufficient action to “get the lead out” and ensure safe drinking water for your children?

To help parents answer these questions and demand action at the local level, Illinois PIRG Education Fund has a toolkit that parents can access for advice on lead exposure and mitigation.

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