Is School Drinking Water Safe?

The water quality in your child's school may not be as good as you think

Safe Drinking Water Act Violations
Last September, the Associated Press (AP) created a national stir when it reported that about 2,250 schools had racked up violations of the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act since 1998. Besides lead, the most common contaminants were coliform bacteria, nitrates, and arsenic. (Respectively, these tend to come from sewage contamination, fertilizer runoff and certain types of rock.)

The AP drew its numbers from an EPA database of roughly 7,700 schools and daycare centers with their own water supplies, which must be regularly tested, with violations reported to the EPA. The vast majority of U.S. schools – more than 90 percent – get their water from public utilities (the same as the surrounding community). So their taps are not directly monitored. But both public water utilities and schools with separate water supplies must meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards, which set maximum levels for around 90 potentially hazardous contaminants or groups of contaminants.

The violation rate of schools with separate water systems is, in fact, no higher than that of public water utilities (around 20 percent over the last five years), says Cynthia Dougherty, director of the EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. And schools, she says, have a higher rate of resolving their problems before follow-up testing (87 percent of the time). “That said, the current administration has made children’s health a very high priority,” Dougherty says, “and the EPA continues to work on this issue.” This includes a new EPA enforcement policy that gives priority attention to water systems—including school water systems—that have not addressed widespread violations. (To find out more about your local or school water supply, visit the database compiled by the Environmental Working Group.)

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