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Lead Alert in Massachusetts School Fountains, UMass Amherst Study Uncovers Toxic Risk in Older Buildings

Lead Alert in Massachusetts School Fountains, UMass Amherst Study Uncovers Toxic Risk in Older BuildingsSource: Unsplash/ LuAnn Hunt
Sam Cavanaugh
Published on December 01, 2023

A disturbing study from researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst reveals a prevalence of unsafe lead levels, especially in buildings dating back to the '60s and '70s. Published in the American Water Works Association’s journal Water Science, the study pins the bulk of the blame on the age of the buildings, with older structures particularly at risk for tainting children’s drinking water with the toxic metal.

About a third of the tested facilities, constructed in the said decades, are most likely to have alarmingly high water lead levels upon first use each day. “That means that if you go into a facility built in the ’60s or ’70s and are the first one to get a glass of water in the morning or after a long school break, you’d have a high chance of it having a dangerously high level of lead,” Assistant Professor Emily Kumpel told the University of Massachusetts' news publication, delineating the grim risks tied to old plumbing.

The University of Massachusetts provides a public database of water quality for dutiful parental scrutiny, and the state's Department of Environmental Protection's laudable goal is for schools and childcare facilities to attain lead levels of 1 ppb or less. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act Amendment did shift standards in 1986, resulting in newer infrastructure having significantly reduced instances of lead contamination, but structures that predate this amendment are showing a concerning pattern of noncompliance with the recommended lead levels.

The study throws light on a pressing need for older Massachusetts educational institutions to take swift remedial action to prevent childhood exposure, which can lead to a litany of adverse health issues, including brain and nervous system damage, sluggish growth and development, and learning and behavioral complications. John Tobiason, professor and head of the UMass Amherst civil and environmental engineering department and co-author on this paper, offers some optimism, however, with initiatives like the Massachusetts School Water Improvement Grant (SWIG) program geared towards installing filtered bottle fill stations in schools.

The research has an upside, as Kumpel notes that it aids in prioritizing those facilities that have not yet undergone testing,  “That was what we were trying to get at with this model: of those that haven’t yet tested, can we prioritize the places that we might need to look at the most? Using these factors, can we then predict where we should make sure to follow up?” she explained to UMass Amherst news.

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