In December 2018, the Vermont Department of Health announced plans to test the water in every school in the state for the presence of lead. This came after a pilot project involving 16 schools found that the highly toxic metal was present in the water from at least one tap in every school tested. Lead isn't safe for anyone, but it presents the greatest risks for children, pregnant women and developing fetuses.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine explains why lead poisoning is a serious public health hazard and what can be done to prevent it.
KIDS VT: Why is lead especially dangerous to children?
MARK LEVINE: Lead can affect many different parts of the human body, but the parts we care about most in children are the brain and nervous system, which are rapidly growing and developing. Lead can affect all the things you care about for kids in school: learning, attention span, hearing, speech, the ability to integrate material (so-called executive functions), visual-motor integration and IQ. It can also affect their social behaviors, which can impair a child's ability to remain in the school setting.
KVT: What are the signs of acute lead poisoning?
ML: Acute symptoms include headaches, vomiting, loss of appetite, irritability and, sometimes, gastrointestinal problems. But the more long-lasting ones, which I've already mentioned, are irreversible. And unless a child is exposed to a dangerous amount of lead [all at once], they usually don't show acute symptoms. So, if kids are getting small amounts of lead over time and it's accumulating, parents may not know it.
KVT: How long does lead stay in the body?
ML: Once it gets into the organs, it remains there. When a 1- or 2-year-old has an especially high level in their blood, often they get hospitalized, or treated as an outpatient, with chelation therapy, in which medication delivered intravenously binds to the lead, creating a compound that is excreted from the body. But even when some of it leaves, the damage is already done.
KVT: How widespread is lead contamination in Vermont?
ML: Seventy percent of our housing stock was built before 1978, which was the year that Congress banned lead-based house paints. So, that's a huge proportion of Vermont homes, and that's the primary way that kids get poisoned by lead. It's not the only way — homes can also have lead in old plumbing — but lead-based paint is a major source. Children often would eat lead-contaminated paint chips or soil, which is called pica disorder, or they're inhaling it in dust.
KVT: Should all children be tested for lead?
ML: We recommend that all children get tested at ages 1 and 2. This is a nationally recognized standard of pediatric care and required under Vermont law. Depending on the result, your health care provider may recommend additional testing.
KVT: What's considered an elevated blood lead level?
ML: If a child has lead levels at 5 micrograms per deciliter, that's considered mild lead poisoning. That level in a 1- or 2-year-old allows a family to access the Department of Health's Healthy Homes program. A case manager will contact the family and offer a home visit to test the water and identify other potential lead hazards such as keys, toys, antiques, jewelry and pottery. Kids who play in the soil near older homes can be at risk because sometimes they eat the soil. And, if they don't wash their hands before grabbing food, they can ingest the lead on their hands.
KVT: Would parents know if there's lead in their water without testing it?
ML: No. It's tasteless, colorless and odorless. Without testing, schools wouldn't know what's coming out of their faucets, and most parents wouldn't know that their child's blood lead levels are elevated.
KVT: If a school's water has elevated lead levels, what's the next step?
ML: Our pilot project tested 16 schools throughout the state. Generally, the water going into the schools wasn't the issue. It's things like lead solder in the plumbing fixtures and occasionally in the pipes. We learned from the pilot study that the remediation costs were only in the $500 range for each school. Sometimes, schools were able to just shut that faucet off and not use it because they had other options. Some schools invested in bottled water or filtration systems.
KVT: Is the state testing all school water supplies?
ML: Yes, all public and private schools. The legislature would like to extend the testing to all childcare centers as well. Childcare centers — including home-based centers — are already required to test for lead, but the current limit is 15 parts per billion. The newly proposed state legislation would create an even lower threshold of 3 parts per billion.