Tennessee schools continue to detect lead in drinking water despite testing mandates


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — According to a recently released report from the Tennessee Department of Health, 53 school districts reported having at least one source of drinking water with high levels of lead.
However, without proper testing, it would be extremely difficult for these high levels to be detected.

The presence of lead in water doesn’t make it taste odd, smell weird or look strange, according to experts, but it can silently wreak havoc on children’s bodies and minds.

According to recently released data from the Tennessee Department of Health, unsafe levels of lead were detected in 19 Middle Tennessee counties in 2022, 44 counties statewide.

“Lead in children’s blood what that can lead to is behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, hyperactivity, slow growth, and potentially anemia,” said Caroline Pakenham, co-author of a report for the National Association of State Boards of Education on lead levels in school drinking water.

A Tennessee law that went into effect in 2019 orders that if a school was built before 1998, each local school district has to have a system in place to test drinking water for lead.

If lead levels are 20 parts per billion (ppb) or greater, then parents have to be notified, the water source needs to be taken offline and the water needs to be retested again 90 days after the district’s efforts to fix it.

The EPA says if the lead levels of a drinking water source are 15 ppb, action needs to be taken. Under Tennessee law, if the ppb is between 15 and 19, the school must test the water annually until it is below 15 ppb but is not mandated to report it to state agencies.

“All local boards of education have the policy to implement a program to reduce the potential sources of lead contamination in drinking water in schools. The policy must require periodic testing of lead levels in drinking water sources at school facilities and specific actions depending upon the results of the tests,” said a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education in a statement to News 2.

While Pakenham said all efforts to lower lead levels in water should be applauded, not all of them are a permanent solution.

She said if a school implements a filter system, it should be changed, schools should check lead levels again after making changes to plumbing, and if they are keeping lead levels down by flushing the pipes, schools should be flushing continuously.

Pakenham added that when schools are on a break, lead levels may be creeping up.

“Child care facilities really should be flushing their water and that’s moving water through the pipes after a long weekend, after a summer break, after a holiday because you can have heavy metals build up after long time periods,” she explained.

Pakenham said one of the best ways to make sure lead levels remain low is to replace plumbing materials, but she acknowledges that it can be expensive and timely to do that. Therefore, she says making sure kids have clean drinking water is a team effort between school boards, districts, parents and state and local government.

And while all efforts to lower lead levels are an important step, Pakenham says the goal should be getting lead levels as close to zero as possible.

“There is no level in children’s blood that is safe,” she said.

This sentiment is echoed by the American Academy of Pediatricswhich views the EPAs benchmark of 15 ppb as a level that should not be used as a health standard.

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Cheatham County Schools released a statement to News 2, which reads:

Schools in Cheatham county were among the top 10 with the highest number of drinking fixtures with high levels of lead. In a statement to News 2 a spokesperson for the Cheatham County School District said, “In 2020, the Cheatham County School District tested every source of water in our buildings, 1,442 sources in all not including toilets. 29 had unacceptable levels of lead. They have all since been remediated and cleared or they are shut off.”

Cheatham County Schools

Pakenham says parents who are concerned about lead levels in the water at their child’s school should ask their district what mitigation strategies are in place.

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