HELENA — Children spend a lot of time at school, and a statewide rule is aimed at minimizing their lead exposure while they are there.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services rolled out the lead reduction in school drinking water rule at the beginning of 2020—its goal is simple, but complying with it poses challenges.
The lead reduction in school drinking water rule — designed with help from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Office of Public Instruction—states all schools under the OPI must test water throughout their facilities for lead levels.
“The schools are required to sample all their drinking water fountains, all kitchen fixtures that are used for either food preparation or drinking, as well as all their fixtures that have the potential to be used for drinking water,” DEQ lead reduction in school drinking water rule manager Greg Montgomery said.
Water samples from each fixture are tested and fall in one of three state-designated categories. Fixtures producing water with less than five parts-per-billion of lead are approved for continued use; fixtures with more than five parts-per-billion of lead must be fixed, replaced or removed from service; and fixtures with 15 or more parts-per-billion of lead must be immediately removed from service.
The goal is for all fixtures in all schools across Montana to produce water with less than five parts-per-billion of lead. According to health experts, there is no healthy level of lead in water, and limiting exposure is especially important for children.
“It can potentially be really dangerous,” St. Peter’s Health Medical Group physician Dr. Kyle Moore said. “It can lead to effecting every organ system, it can effect muscles, it can effect the gastro-intestinal system, and it can effect the nervous system, which is probably the most concerning.”
According to Moore, lead exposure and poisoning can cause intellectual developmental delay and slow growth. Preventing these possible negative health impacts in students is the motivation behind the lead reduction rule, Montgomery said.
“It’s very important,” Montgomery said. “Lead effects children the most.”
For schools across Montana, getting all fixtures to meet that usable level of lead content will not be without challenges.
Kalispell Public Schools is one of the only districts in the state that has submitted water for testing. All of the five schools sampled have fixtures with elevated levels of lead.
At Elrod Elementary School, for example, 43 of the 57 fixtures sampled exceeded the state action level of lead content, and 16 fixtures required immediate removal.
“We have drinking fountains in our hallways that water is completely disconnected, not just shut off, but cut the line to the water,” Kalispell Public Schools superintendent Micah Hill said.
And according to officials, there will likely be more schools like Elrod across the state.
“We are expecting to see higher lead concentrations in the older buildings,” Montgomery said.
Lead can seep into water from plumbing and fixtures, especially older plumbing and fixtures, Montgomery explained. Montana has a lot of older schools. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the average age of a school facility in Montana is 53-years-old.
In Kalispell, filters were installed on fixtures that required fixing, and according to officials, they work.
“They’ve since collected follow-up samples with those filters, which have all come back non-detect for lead,” Montgomery said.
Hill said filters are not a permanent solution. Each filter is good for 100 gallons of water, and then needs to be replaced, Hill estimated that will cost up to $10,000 per building, per year.
“At the end of the day, district are going to be liable to go in and replace fixtures, redo plumbing,” Hill said.
The OPI and DEQ do have a remediation grant program, which Montgomery said covers up to $1,000 per school, but Hill estimated the work that needs to be done across his district could cost millions.
“The budget was not built with this in mind,” Hill said. “It’s going to be extremely challenging for schools across the state of Montana, especially with aging facilities, to be able to go in and address it.”
Despite possible financial challenges, Hill said he agrees with state officials—limiting lead content in school water is important.
“I think as a school, and as a community, we owe it to our kids to make sure that we’re providing the best possible infrastructure for them to be able to learn and grow.”