Missouri bill would require schools to filter drinking fountains for lead

The state health department estimated as many as 10% of fountains could have greater concentrations of lead than EPA standards allow.

By: - December 22, 2021 11:00 am

A new law requires schools ensure children’s drinking water has less than one part per billion of lead, far lower than current standards (Getty Images).

Thousands of Missouri school buildings are likely not testing their water for lead. A Missouri House bill would require them to start filtering. 

Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin. Medical professionals say there is no safe amount of lead for children to inhale or consume. But Missouri residents drink water supplied by lead pipes at rates exceeding almost the entire country. 

And children in Missouri suffer from elevated levels of lead in their blood in numbers exceeding all but a few states. 

“Since no level of exposure is safe, just addressing one part of this very large problem is helpful,” said Madeline Middlebrooks, an equal justice works fellow for the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center. 

A Missouri House bill would require that schools install high-quality filters to assure children aren’t drinking water contaminated by lead, which can leach into the water from lead pipes. The legislation would require schools to test after the installation and ensure the water has less than one part per billion of lead. Water fountains that exceed that level must be shut off, and the school must develop a plan to remediate the lead. 

Starting when children return to school in the summer of 2023, schools would be required to provide drinking water with a lead concentration below one part per billion. They would have to have one filtered drinking station per 100 students in every building. 

Districts would also have to submit their testing results to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. 

The bill outlines a number of federal programs from which schools can seek reimbursement and allows the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to provide funding. Funding would be prioritized for disadvantaged schools.  

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Paula Brown, is similar to legislation passed in Michigan in 2019. A slimmer version of the bill was introduced in 2020 but never got a committee hearing. 

Brown, a retired teacher, noted lead exposure can have detrimental effects on children’s cognitive development and cause learning delays. 

“As a mom, I don’t want my kids or anybody else’s kids drinking any lead,” she said. 

She said it’s hard to know how widespread an issue lead in school water supplies is because not all districts have tested for lead. 

The Department for Health and Senior Services said schools that voluntarily test for lead are required to report the results to the public. Based on information it received when it applied for a federal grant for lead testing, the department thinks about 10% of faucets could test at levels above the EPA standard of 15 parts per billion.

Middlebrooks said filtering first rather than requiring schools to test every fountain and kitchen sink is less expensive. 

Lead exposure is a long-running problem in Missouri. The state has a history of lead mining and smelting that contaminated huge swaths of Southeast Missouri. 

As a mom, I don’t want my kids or anybody else’s kids drinking any lead.

– state Rep. Paula Brown

In St. Louis, minors at a juvenile justice facility were exposed to water with elevated levels of lead for two years, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 2016, St. Louis Public Schools shut off a dozen water fountains and sinks contaminated with lead.  

The Rev. Elston McCowan, first vice president of the St. Louis branch of the NAACP, said he would urge the civil rights organization to support the legislation. McCowan also chair’s the St. Louis NAACP’s committee on environmental justice. 

“It makes all the sense in the whole wide world,” McCowan said. “Everybody should be on board on doing whatever remediation needs to be done to ensure that not only are children drinking safe water at school, but they’re drinking safe water at home and any public places or private restaurants or any place they go.” 

McCowan said safe drinking water is a God-given right.

Remediating lead is a major priority of President Joe Biden’s administration. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package Biden signed last month will spend $15 billion on replacing lead service lines. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates as many as 12 million Americans could receive drinking water through lead pipes. 

In Missouri, it estimates 5,462 residents per 100,000 have lead service lines. About 4.5% of Missouri children have elevated levels of lead — above five micrograms per deciliter — in their blood. 

Brown said she would work with members of the House Budget Committee to ensure funding for the bill, noting the provisions for lead included in Biden’s infrastructure bill.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Elston McCowan’s position with the NAACP. It has been updated.”

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on energy, the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she previously covered City Hall for The Kansas City Star, as well as state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City.