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A typical weekday finds some 53 million American children in school, where they drink from water fountains and classroom taps. That would seem a good thing: Doctors and nutritionists alike urge us to teach our kids to quench their thirst with water instead of the sweetened drinks that can contribute to obesity. But it turns out that thousands of U.S. schools and daycares are plagued by unsafe drinking water—often without anyone realizing it.
In part, the problem may stem from inadequate protection of public water supplies – a situation that affects the water in our homes as well as schools. More worrisome is the realization that schoolhouse drinking water can contain high levels of lead—an element long known to stunt growth and brain development.
“What we have is a situation where our most vulnerable population—our children--are exposed to the biggest problem in schools,” says water-quality engineer Marc Edwards, Ph.D., of Virginia Tech.
Named as a MacArthur Fellow in 2007 for his role in exposing and addressing problems affecting America’s drinking water, Edwards says lead in school drinking water is chief among these concerns. His findings and those of others are now starting to get attention at the highest levels of government.
“Americans have a right to expect that their children are safe from drinking water pollution in their schools,” says Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who recently convened hearings to examine the problem of water safety in general and drinking water in schools in particular—both with an eye toward potential solutions.
“I want to ensure that the EPA has the tools it needs to protect our children,” she told Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) officials in December, while also demanding that they use their powers to correct a history of lax enforcement and expand the list of toxic water contaminants regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.