The University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC) is offering free lead testing for up to five Iowa elementary schools with older drinking water infrastructure, thanks to Grants to School Program funding that will provide up to $10,000 per school to cover the cost of the work.

CHEEC is working with the Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory (SHL) to offer the testing as a public health service. 

Lead can enter into drinking water through plumbing materials, including drinking water fountains and other fixtures. You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in water. Testing is the only sure way to tell if there are elevated levels of lead in your drinking water. Because of the legacy of lead in the plumbing of older buildings, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s)  3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water Toolkit recommends that schools test their drinking water to “pinpoint potential lead sources to reduce their lead levels to the lowest possible concentrations.”

“There is no known safe level of lead exposure for children, and school age children are especially vulnerable to exposure due to their ongoing growth and development,” said CHEEC Director David Cwiertny, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Iowa.  “As the parent of two young children in elementary school, it’s important that we be proactive to ensure their drinking water is safe. CHEEC was eager to find a way to conduct water sampling to provide that peace of mind and remedy problems where we find them. The Grants to Schools Program provides us that opportunity.”

There is no federal law requiring testing of drinking water in schools, except for schools that own and/or operate their own public water supply and are thus regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act through the Lead and Copper Rule. Currently, EPA is working on assisting schools with testing through a grant program that will provide limited funding to states, although federal funds are not yet available to assist schools with remedial actions in the event lead is found. 

Through CHEEC’s Grants to Schools Program, funds can also be used for the removal and replacement of high priority drinking water outlets that are found to have unsafe levels of lead. Sampling of every water outlet in the school will be conducted by trained personnel from CHEEC, and sample analysis will be conducted by SHL, which is certified for lead testing under the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule. Throughout the sampling, analysis and repair process, CHEEC will work closely with school personnel and relevant stakeholders (school staff, parents, and school board) to communicate testing results in a timely and clear fashion and to develop a remedial action plan that prioritizes minimizing exposure to lead through school drinking water. 

“Lessons learned from similar programs implemented across the country have shown that lack of funds to support remediation is a tremendous barrier to lead testing programs,” said Darrin Thompson, associate director of CHEEC. “As a center focused on human health effects and environmental exposures we felt that it was important to ensure resources are available to help schools address any issues that are identified through comprehensive sampling.”

In spring 2019, CHEEC piloted the program in two schools in Jones County, in partnership with Linn County Public Health.

“Earlier this year we tested nearly 300 taps in two elementary schools for lead,” Thompson said. “We learned so much from this experience, and it really validated our ‘test ever tap’ approach. The overwhelming majority of outlets tested were safe, but there were one or two instances where we found unsafe water. We were able to work with the schools and take necessary action to fix those trouble spots, problem areas we may have missed if we only looked at a handful of taps.”

CHEEC provided funding to these schools to replace old water fixtures and install new, lead-free drinking water fountains and bottle fillers. “The feedback CHEEC received was overwhelmingly positive,” Thompson added.  “Based upon this experience we wanted to make sure that similar opportunities were available to schools across Iowa that are interested in testing and remediating potential lead contamination.”

While current plans call for testing in five schools, the program is intended to be ongoing providing further opportunities in the future.  CHEEC may also support testing in additional schools as funds allow.

Schools interest in having lead testing this fall should contact the CHEEC at: cheec@uiowa.edu or 1-319-335-4550. More information is also available on CHEEC’s website.

Established through the 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act, CHEEC supports and conducts environmental health research relating to environmental toxins. Its mission is ‘to determine the levels of environmental contamination which can be specifically associated with human health effects”.

For more information, visit https://cheec.uiowa.edu or email cheec@uiowa.edu.

CHEEC is part of the University of Iowa Office of the Vice President for Research, which provides researchers and scholars with resources, guidance, and inspiration to secure funding, collaborate, innovate, and forge frontiers of discovery that benefit everyone. More at http://research.uiowa.edu, and on Twitter: @DaretoDiscover

Media Contact: Stephen Pradarelli, Office of the Vice President for Research, 319-384-1282 or stephen-pradarelli@uiowa.edu.