Tackling lead in water at child care facilities

EDF pilot project highlights critical need for testing and remediation

Report published: June 2018 | Revised: January 2019

Children under the age of six are most vulnerable to harm from lead because of their developing brains, and infants who rely on drinking water to mix formula are among the most exposed. While reducing all exposure to lead is important, priority should be given to child care facilities – where many young children spend a large portion of their day.

Despite the particular vulnerability of children to the harmful effects of lead exposure, only eight states require child care facilities to test for lead in their water. Given the critical need for more investigation in this area, EDF conducted a pilot project to evaluate new approaches to testing and remediating lead in water in child care facilities.

Three months following the release of this report, EPA updated its “3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water” guidance for schools and child care facilities. Overall, the new toolkit is an improvement, at least partially addressing EDF’s key concerns with the previous guidance.

What we did

EDF collaborated with local partners to conduct water testing and remediation in 11 child care facilities serving over 1,000 children primarily from low-income families in Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, and Ohio.

Novel aspects of our protocol included:

  • Investigation and removal of lead service lines where present;
  • Use of 3.8 ppb as risk-based benchmark to trigger remediation, including fixture replacement; in Illinois, we used >2 ppb due to an anticipated state standard;
  • Use of portable lead meters to screen lead levels at the tap; and
  • Testing of hot water and water heater samples.

Overall, local partners tested and had analyzed over 1,500 water samples from 294 fixtures, resulting in the replacement of 26 fixtures based on our health-based action level. Additionally, we replaced two lead service lines.

Key findings

  • More than 3 out of 4 water samples had lead levels below 1 ppb. However, 7 of 11 child care facilities had at least one drinking water fixture sample above our action level.
  • While fixture replacement was often effective, we could not consistently reduce lead levels to below our action level, likely due to an inadequate NSF International standard that allows new brass fixtures to leach up to 5 ppb of lead.
  • Flushing fixtures (such as faucets) for just 5 seconds reduced lead levels; flushing for 30 second was more even effective.
  • Cleaning the aerator at the end of the faucet is important, but may increase lead levels in certain situations. While more investigation is needed, we recommend soaking aerators in vinegar to dissolve particulate lead.
  • Water heaters may function as “lead traps” for upstream sources of lead.

Key recommendations

  • Replace lead service lines in child care facilities when found through review of historical records and visual inspection.
  • Require testing for lead in water in child care facilities for interior sources of lead.
  • Set an interim action level of 5 ppb to investigate and remediate lead sources.
  • Strengthen the NSF International 5 ppb leachability standard to reduce lead in new brass fixtures.

We recommend that concerned parents reach out to their child care provider to ask whether the facility has a lead service line, has tested for lead, and – if they have conducted testing – what the results and remediation plans are. Child care operators who want to take action can learn more by contacting their local health department and water utility.

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