JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – This school year, school districts all around the state of Missouri are testing for lead in drinking water in compliance with a new law.
Before Jan. 1, all schools are required to create a testing plan. Then, under law, schools have until next August to test all drinking water for lead.
With Missouri being a leading lead-producing state, there are concerns about what the results will show.
“There’s no known safe level of lead in the body,” said Melissa May, health drinking water unit chief in the bureau of epidemiology at the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS). “We are doing our best to help schools reduce lead in drinking water because we do know the adverse health effects of lead in our drinking water, and we are committed to keeping our children safe in Missouri.”
Throughout the next year, schools across the state will be testing all drinking water outlets, like water fountains and faucets.
“How many times do you see somebody leaning over and taking a drink out of that water fountain?” said Missouri State Rep. Paula Brown (D-Hazelwood). “This is good for our communities, period.”
Brown was one of the sponsors of the “Get the Lead Out of School Drinking Water Act” passed by the General Assembly back in 2022. She worked with legislators from across the aisle to pass what she called “legendary legislation.”
“If we don’t start at schools, it won’t help anyway because [kids] are at school longer nine months out of the year than they really are awake at home,” said Brown.
Lead primarily affects the brain and nervous system. The state’s health department is one of the agencies overseeing the program.
“You can’t see lead in the water, and so, down the road, they might show learning problems, behavior problems, and they might show that they are having problems with their hearing,” said May.
If lead concentrations within the drinking water samples exceed 5 ppb (parts per billion) schools are required to remediate. The language in the law says if in the past ten years, a fixtured has tested above 5ppb for lead, the fixture does not need repeat testing, instead shall just be remediated.
“Most often, they will replace a drinking fountain, they will replace a faucet, or they will install some filtration that will reduce the lead in drinking water,” said May.
If a fixture does not test at or above 5 ppb for lead, the school does not need to test that water outlet for another five years.
Lawmakers also approved $27 million in federal COVID relief money to help schools pay for testing and install filters.
“We don’t mine for lead all over Missouri anymore, but I think we could come up with some places that either have very old infrastructure or underground lead that we don’t know of that might be affecting groundwater,” Brown said.
Brown said she worked with researchers from Flint, Michigan, on the bipartisan legislation. According to DHSS, back in 2021, more than 3,000 kids in Missouri had lead in their blood tests.
“This is huge,” Brown said. “This is probably one of the best things we’ve done for kids in 25 years.”
Schools are required to post the testing results and any remediation plans on the school’s website within two weeks of receiving the results.
Another new law that went into effect this year mandates that all health care providers assess kids under the age of six for lead exposure.