Report:

Get the Lead Out

Ensuring Safe Drinking Water for Our Children at School
Released by: WISPIRG Foundation

Lead is highly toxic and especially damaging to children, impairing how they learn, grow, and behave. But all too often, schools and homes have pipes, plumbing and/or fixtures that leach lead into drinking water. In some cases, old service lines – the pipes that bring water from the mains in the street into buildings – are made entirely of lead. 

Our report finds that current state law does far too little to prevent children’s drinking water from becoming laced with lead at school. Wisconsin relies heavily on inadequate federal laws to regulate lead in drinking water, and requires little or no testing, remediation or public disclosure:

  • Wisconsin uses the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion of lead per liter of water to determine lead contamination. This standard is widely regarded as being too high. There is no safe level of lead exposure, and children have been adversely impacted by far lower levels of contamination.
  • The state does not require proactive steps to remove lead infrastructure from schools, nor does state policy mandate remediation in most cases when lead contamination has been detected in a school’s water.
  • Wisconsin does not require most schools to test their drinking water for lead, and there is confusion over proper testing protocol in schools that check their systems voluntarily, as the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has reported.
  • State law does not require schools to disclose to parents the existence of lead infrastructure in school buildings or the results of lead testing.

In our comparison of 16 states and the District of Columbia, these shortcomings gave Wisconsin a failing grade. While Wisconsin has taken important steps to get rid of lead infrastructure, including in schools and daycares, through the Department of Natural Resources’ $14.5 million Safe Drinking Water Loan Program, these efforts do not make up for inadequate state laws and policies. 11 other states also received an “F” in our analysis.

The report recognizes the following positive efforts in Wisconsin:

  • The Department of Natural Resources created a voluntary $14.5 million Safe Drinking Water Loan Program to help communities remove lead infrastructure from their water systems, including in schools and daycares.
  • The City of Milwaukee has pledged $6.8 million, partly through the DNR’s program, to remove lead pipes from schools, daycares and homes.
  • Madison is widely seen as a national leader for its extensive program that removed all of the city’s lead lines and many more in private homes between 2001 and 2010.

Recommendations:

  1. First and foremost, we have to get the lead out of schools, homes and daycares.
  2. Until lead infrastructure has been removed, we can protect our children with filters certified to remove lead, at every tap used for drinking or cooking.
  3. Wisconsin should require action at lead contamination of 1 part per billion. Medical experts agree that there is no safe level of lead, and standards that trigger mandatory remediation should reflect this. At a minimum, outlets with water exceeding this concentration of lead should immediately be removed from service until permanent remediation ensures safe drink­ing water.
  4. Schools and early childhood programs should test at all water outlets used for drinking and cooking annually, and use protocols designed to capture worst-case lead exposure for children. This means they should avoid flushing the system before taking a test sample.
  5. Schools and early childhood programs should provide parents and the public with information about lead-bear­ing parts in their water system, with test results, and with remediation plans and progress.

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