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State replaces drinking taps after elevated lead levels found in Vt. child care centers, schools

A graphic showing a blue illustration of a tap with a drop of water coming out, and the words test your tap inscribed in the tap shape
Vermont Department of Health, Courtesy
Vermont schools and child care facilities have completed testing and remediation for lead in their drinking water. And the results showed that one in five taps had lead levels at or above recommended state levels.

A release from the Vermont Department of Health last month showed 98% of Vermont schools and child care facilities have completed testing and remediation for lead in their drinking water. That’s after a law passed in 2019 required all those state facilities to do so. And the results showed that one in five taps had lead levels at or above recommended state levels.

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Vermont’s Commissioner of Health, Dr. Mark Levine to help understand and interpret these findings. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: This is the first round of testing that was just completed, as I understand it, and 98% completion and remediation is a pretty solid number. Can you break it down for us, though? What exactly does that mean?

Dr. Mark Levine: Well, in preparation for talking with you, Mitch, I actually did a little more research and the 98% number was at the turn of the year. And we are now basically at 100% for both schools and child care centers. So that's actually quite phenomenal, especially considering we had this thing called a pandemic, that did delay things for schools.

As I understand it, that's more than 15,000 taps that were tested in over 400 schools, over 750 child care facilities around the state. All of that is good. But the bad news is one out of the five taps had results that showed lead at or above recommended state levels. So where are you seeing most of these taps with elevated lead levels? Are they primarily in schools in older buildings ... what specific locations?

The age of the school might have a little to do with it. But these were seen in situations where there might be a sink, and a sink that wasn't generally used for drinking water. But often the schools were quite heterogeneous, when you might imagine this number of taps being found positive, it's inevitable for a school to have one or two of such taps.

Fortunately, the place where this was least found was with bottle-filling stations, or fountains and things of that sort. We also, fortunately, were able to find that the majority of these taps — 90% of them — did not require a huge amount of expensive remediation. In fact, the cost to replace the fixture, which was generally the problem, was under $500 per tap. And the reality is, schools did not have to overhaul their entire plumbing system.

More from Vermont Public: Getting The Lead Out: Schools, Child Care Centers Prep For Water Testing

So it sounds like you're saying that the remediation is underway, a lot of these taps are being replaced. What I'm concerned about, though, and I'm sure that many parents are concerned about as well, is whether or not their children had been exposed to too much lead in the drinking water, and the adverse effects of that. And I wonder if you could tell me about some of the dangers associated with drinking water that may have exceeded lead levels in it?

Sure. So the basic rule in public health is that there is no safe level of lead in the body. Most of lead that affects kids in an adverse way is not coming from the water supply as much as it's coming from various things around a home, usually a home that was built before 1978, that might have lead-based paint in it — so dust from that paint, or actual ingestion of paint chips by an infant.

But it could be a whole variety of products around the home, it could be in the form of antiques, it could be in the form of something that's in the soil, or even jewelry, and toys. So we think that lead in the water might account for about 20% of the total lead burden, if you will, if a child has been found to have an elevated level of lead in their blood.

The impacts of lead are on a variety of systems. But we are most concerned about the nervous system and the brain. Because these have a direct impact on learning potential, on attentiveness, on behavior, as well as on growth development and the kidneys as well.

"Most of lead that affects kids in an adverse way is not coming from the water supply as much as it's coming from various things around a home, usually a home that was built before 1978, that might have lead-based paint in it ..."
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine

And it sounds like you're most encouraged by the fact that we have reached about ... 100% of testing of these schools and child care facilities. Now the testing seems to be the most important thing in your mind. Is that right?

That's correct. And the fact that we're one of the states that did have the legislative and executive branch support to provide financial support for the schools makes it all the better, because the schools are not disincentivized to fix what needs to be fixed, because there's already money there to replace these faucets.

You mentioned older homes as well, that you know, there's the exposure in schools, child care facilities, but that homes, older homes, are a problem. Are there statewide efforts you're aware of aimed at reducing lead in older homes? And if so, what are those efforts?

Yes, so we have an entire lead program at the Health Department. And we work very closely with the pediatric community. So the way these homes generally are identified, is if there's a child who shows an elevated level, and that kicks a lot into gear, depending on what the level was in the child's blood. There are probably 400 or less children at these young ages who are found to have significantly elevated lead levels, although fortunately, the majority of them are at the lower end of the range. But there's occasions where we find a child with a very high level.

Most of the time, what will happen is an immediate conversation with our lead program, so that a home visit can be arranged. And at that time, a real investigation is carried out about where the sources of lead might be in that child's environment. And then obviously appropriate remediation strategies can be designed to manage that.

So Dr. Levine, it sounds like you're saying if there are parents who are concerned that their child may have been exposed to exceeded lead levels in drinking water, should they contact the Health Department? Should they contact their medical provider? What should their next step be?

They should have a discussion with their pediatrician. All schools, plus the state, plus all parents, can actually understand what their school looked like with regard to the testing: How many faucets? How high was the level?

But if they have any concerns about their child, obviously they should raise that with their pediatrician, and both they and the pediatrician will have insight into how the school performed with regard to elevated levels in any of its facets.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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