A few years ago, Illinois elementary schools had to test their water for lead. What happened if they found it?
Sycamore citizens filed a class-action lawsuit against the city in 2020 claiming city leaders ignored issues with the water system, leading to high levels of lead in water. In part one of our series looking into lead exposure, WNIJ’s Peter Medlin reports on testing procedures in schools.
An Illinois Department of Public Health fact sheet doesn’t dance around the issue: “There is no safe level of lead. Lead is a poison and even small amounts can interfere with normal body processes and development.”
In early 2017, in response to the lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, the Illinois legislature passed a law requiring schools test their water for lead.
All schools & daycares that teach students under 6 years old and were built before the year 2000 had to test. That’s because young children are especially vulnerable to developmental delays from lead contamination.
“The state of Illinois has a major problem with lead," said Melissa Lenczewski. She's a professor at Northern Illinois University who studies environmental microbiology and contaminant hydrology. "I mean, we were one of the big states that used a lot of lead and built up during that time when lead was out there," said
If a school’s water sample exceeded five parts per billion of lead, they were required to send a notice home to parents.
Some districts, like DeKalb, tested every school. Of the 13 buildings, 11 had samples over the state-mandated level, forcing them to notify parents. Several, like Huntley Middle School, had dozens of sinks and water fountains over 5 parts per billion. Other water sources turned up much higher. One elementary school sink had levels over 1,000 -- nearly 300 times higher than the required parent notification level.
So, what happens after a school finds elevated lead levels?
Tammy Carson is DeKalb School District’s director of facility & safety operations. She helped lead the lead testing a few years ago. She said they decided to replace fixtures and take water fountains out of service if they were over 15 parts per billion.
“Anything that was over that level that we did replace," she said. "We then retested after the fact."
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends schools take action if they have results over 20 parts per billion. The Illinois Department of Public Health recommended schools create mitigation strategies, but didn’t require them to do anything else besides contacting parents.
“Honestly, based on the letter of the law, we're not obligated to do anything else," said Carson. "That's one thing that I'll say is kind of frustrating is the requirement to test we understood, but not [to have] received guidance on what the expectation is moving forward kind of feels like it falls dead.”
The district also started flushing drinking water sources for two minutes every month. Carson says that before the law, they never had to test for lead. They haven’t had to retest since, either.
“We would rather have some clear direction on the expectations, so that it doesn't come back and there's an issue found in the future, but it's just not there," she said.
Mark Eckstrom is the director of buildings and grounds for the Sycamore School District. Every elementary school had at least a few lead samples over the parent notification level.
He said they replaced a few faucets, and are working on removing dead-end pipes where water sits and could become a breeding ground for Legionnaire's Disease.
“[For all] of the drinking water, though, at every building, we put in reverse osmosis filters,” he said.
Even though they’re not required to test for lead again, Eckstrom said they should.
“To make sure every five to 10 years, ‘is it still at the same levels?,’" he said. "Even though we know a lot of our stuff is safer now, our buildings still are getting older. A lot of our buildings are from the 1950s.”
Curiously enough, the Sycamore elementary school with the highest level of lead was the newest building. In fact, they didn’t have to test the school at all since it was built after 2000. How is that possible?
Matt Anderson is the Sycamore Public Works Director and works with water quality. He said it’s because even “lead-free” fixtures in newer buildings can contain certain amounts of lead.
Water sources at the newer elementary school were over twice the EPA’s action level. So, it raises the question: why were schools built after 2000 exempt from lead testing if fixtures in those schools can still contain that much lead?
Daycare centers and preschools built before 2000 also had to test. The parental notice level was even lower because kids that young are at higher risk of developmental delays from lead.
Data obtained by WNIJ shows 13 of the 14 Department of Children & Family Services-licensed facilities in DeKalb and Sycamore had levels high enough to disclose to parents. One preschool, ABC, in Sycamore, had lead levels that high in over 70% of the sources they tested. In 2020, the school replaced more than 30 fixtures, had stopped allowing students to use water fountains, and were serving them water from a faucet that tested below 2 parts per billion until they retested.
Unlike school districts, DCFS required facilities to implement mitigation plans, like water treatment or fixture replacement.
NIU professor Melissa Lenczewski studies contaminant hydrology. She said schools should be testing more than just once, but students are more likely to be exposed to lead at home where they drink more water than in school.
She said the solution for schools with elevated lead levels might not be to rip up all of the pipes and replace every fixture. She did say reverse osmosis filters are very effective and regular flushing helps too.
“I think the solution really is to educate parents," she said, "but also to have a safe drinking water fountain — that this is the only place they can get water, where you know it's got these proper lead filters into it and it's regularly tested.”
Lenczewski said lead in water and paint is a huge infrastructure issue that’s endemic in the United States, and here in Illinois. And she said it’s going to take big investments from cities, states and the federal government to protect kids from lead poisoning.