States Ramp Up Lead Testing and Water Flushing in Schools

By Joseph Hedger

In its proposed American Jobs Plan, the Biden administration’s call to eliminate lead pipes and service lines in drinking water systems brought heightened attention to the presence of lead in school drinking water. These provisions are part of the bipartisan Congressional infrastructure package, which is still being negotiated following a U.S. Senate test vote in July. In the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act, a separate bill passed in April but has yet to be taken up by the House, the U.S. Senate voted to authorize $35 billion in new investment in water infrastructure projects, including for improving school drinking water.

Several states also have been focusing on eliminating lead in school water and supporting facility maintenance practices that help maintain student health and safety. Last December, the Georgia State Board of Education approved the use of federal funds from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Voluntary Lead Testing in School and Child Care Program Drinking Water Grant to hire Research Triangle Institute to perform lead testing in schools.

In July 2020, the New Jersey State Board of Education amended Admin. Code 6A:26-12.4 to require local education agencies to test for lead in school drinking water every three years rather than every six years, as was previously required.

In June 2021, the Illinois Senate passed the Lead Service Line Notification and Replacement Act, which requires all water utilities to compile an inventory of known lead water service lines and submit a plan for removal and replacement of the lines to the state’s Environmental Protection Agency.

At the beginning of 2021, the New York State Department of Health released a guidance manual for lead testing in school drinking water. Aimed at local school leaders, the document lays out how schools can conform with a 2018 state regulation that requires schools to test all outlets used for drinking or cooking between January 1 and December 31, 2020, providing examples of best management practices that schools may adopt to minimize exposure to lead. The compliance period was extended to June 2021 due to the pandemic.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy released a series of memos to school administrators around drinking water management, restoring water quality in school buildings, and flushing school building plumbing systems before resuming class. Citing the increase of lead and copper in motionless water in pipes, the memos suggest routine flushing programs, especially prior to the return of children and staff to school buildings after prolonged closures.

Departments of health or environment in other states, including Maryland, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, also released recommendations on flushing water outlets in schools during the 2020–21 school year, when buildings were closed for extended periods.