Is School Drinking Water Safe?

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

What You Can Do
Parents need not wait for new EPA regulations to take action toward ensuring safe drinking water in their children’s schools and daycares.

First, parents can ask school administrators to test the lead levels in their drinking water. If testing has not been conducted in more than five years, this should be done for each tap and fountain from which children drink water, Edwards explains. Sometimes the problem stems from a specific valve or pipe.

Importantly, such testing should be done according to EPA protocols, which require that water sits in pipes for at least six hours. A first-thing-in-the-morning sample is ideal.

If unsafe lead levels are found, parents may need to push for remedial action. Some risk reduction can be achieved by flushing all drinking water taps for several minutes at the start of each day, closing or repairing one or two problematic taps, installing filters certified to remove lead by the National Sanitation Foundation, or providing bottled water. If the problems are more extensive it could cost millions to fix. In general, school districts must come up with the funds for such measures, but on occasion there is financial help available from state health departments or other resources.

As for pollutants such as phthalates and perchlorate, they tend to come into a school building from its water source. All water utilities must provide consumers with the results of their EPA-mandated water quality tests. Typically, these results can be found on the utility’s Web site or requested by phone. Similarly, if the school has its own water source (such as a well), parents can ask school administrators for their EPA water-quality results.

Problems stemming from contaminated water supplies can be difficult to tackle, even requiring the intervention of state and federal authorities. Fortunately, faucet water filters eliminate many common pollutants, Solomon explains. However they do not remove perchlorate, certain pesticides such as atrazine, or solvents such as trichloroethylene, all of which are common contaminants. If any are found at elevated levels, Solomon recommends the use of more expensive filtration systems such as reverse osmosis, which uses the water’s own pressure and a semi-permeable membrane, to let water flow while “catching” the particles not easily removed by ordinary filters. These systems cost in the hundreds to thousands of dollars

Alternately, some schools with extensively contaminated water opt to install bottled water dispensers, though bottled water suppliers are far less regulated than public water utilities. Parents should insist on a supplier that conducts water quality testing and provide the results on request.

Meanwhile, experts agree that one of the most important actions parents can take is to become active in safeguarding the water sources that supply their community and schools. “As citizens everyone needs to be making sure that their state government, their community, and surrounding communities are all doing everything they can do to protect these precious natural resources,” Dougherty says. So contact your elected officials, make inquiries, and become involved in citizen-advocacy groups that are doing the same.

For further guidance, the EPA maintains a Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791.

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