Montana schools, including those in Missoula, aren’t doing enough to keep lead out of their drinking water, according to a recent report.
Montana is one of 22 states that received a failing grade for efforts to reduce lead in school drinking water, according to a census by the Environment America Research and Policy Center, and U.S. PIRG Education Fund.
The grade is based on five measurements, including whether the state has a lower lead limit for schools; whether water quality testing is required; whether those tests and other information are made public; whether laws apply equally to all schools; and whether states are at least attempting to take steps to improve the situation.
Montana received zeroes across the board.
Minimal regulations in Montana could allow lead to persist in school drinking water because older buildings or even newer ones often have lead pipes or other lead components. Although water testing isn’t required for most schools, some districts test voluntarily.
As part of the nationwide study, Skye Borden, director of the Missoula-based Environment Montana Research and Policy Center, submitted records requests to four of Montana’s largest school districts: Billings, Missoula, Great Falls and Bozeman.
The records showed that between 2016 and 2018, about three-quarters of the water samples contained lead concentrations of more than 1 part per billion, the standard that the two organizations want for schools. In the Missoula district, 78 percent of 140 samples tested above 1 ppb, although the report didn’t say how high the concentrations were.
However, the schools probably aren’t out of compliance because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard for drinking water is 15 ppb.
The groups argue that the standard needs to be lower for schools because lead, a neurotoxin, is even worse for children, who can absorb 4 to 5 times as much as an adult. Once absorbed, lead flows from the blood to the brain, kidneys and bones. Children’s organs and bones are immature and more vulnerable, and they have an incomplete blood-brain barrier.
In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that drinking water could contribute to approximately 20 percent of a child’s blood lead concentrations if the lead concentration in the water exceeds 5 ppb. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no safe level for lead in children’s blood has been identified.
Borden said the problem could be worse for Montana’s rural schools, which tend to be older and potentially less well maintained.
In the 104 rural schools that are required to test their well water, 78 percent of 423 water samples tested above 1 pbb over the past decade, and one school – Jim Darcy School in Lewis and Clark County – had a sample with a lead concentration of 226 ppb, 16 times the allowable limit.
“Although Montana’s existing policies are not making the grade, I am encouraged by the widespread grassroots movement that is rising up to address the issue,” Borden said in a statement. “I’m hopeful that this will be the last year our report gives Montana an ‘F’.”
Montana might have been able to eliminate one of its zeroes when Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, sponsored House Bill 118 to allow the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to create a grant program for school testing and lead remediation. But the bill died in committee.
“The recent discovery of arsenic in the Three Forks water well reinforces the fact that we do not know what is in our schools’ drinking water,” Dooling said in a statement. “Lead and copper leaching come from inside the system from service lines and fixtures. This is especially concerning, as many of our rural schools are aging structures.”
Montana isn’t the only state being criticized for its lack of lead regulations and testing. It shares an “F” grade with states such as Washington, Colorado, and not surprisingly, Michigan.
Five years ago, Flint, Mich., made news when the city, strapped for cash, chose to switch its water supply to the polluted Flint River but didn’t filter the water. Contaminants in the water corroded the city’s lead pipes, and lead-laced water poisoned up to 9,000 children.
But most states are still failing because they only require a limited level of testing, rather than preventing contamination in the first place. The steps recommended by the study include replacing fountains and other lead-bearing parts and installing water filters. The report also rated states on whether they limit lead to concentrations of 1 ppb or less, as recommended by the AAP.
Of the 31 states tested, only Illinois and the District of Columbia received a grade above “C.”