Report: Child Care is a Critical Gap in Efforts to Reduce Kids’ Exposure to Lead in Water

Pilot project in four states demonstrates importance of testing for and remediating lead in water

June 25, 2018
Keith Gaby, (202) 572-3336,

A new report released today from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) demonstrates that child care facilities are a critical gap – and present a significant opportunity – in the effort to reduce young children’s exposure to lead from drinking water. While children under the age of six are most vulnerable to harm from lead, the vast majority of child care facilities are not required to test their drinking water for lead. To further explore this issue, EDF connected with local partners in four states and conducted a pilot project to investigate new approaches for lead in water testing and remediation in child care settings.  

“Much of the recent national attention on lead in drinking water has focused on in schools. That’s very important, but children under the age of six are most vulnerable to the detrimental impacts of lead. With over 4 million children under five years old in child care facilities across the country, it is crucial that these facilities test their drinking water and, when necessary, take action,” said Sarah Vogel, VP of Health at EDF.   

EDF collaborated with local partners to conduct lead in 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. EDF’s partners on the project were: Elevate Energy (Chicago), Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan (Grand Rapids), Mississippi State University (Tunica and Starkville), People Working Cooperatively (Cincinnati), and Greater Cincinnati Water Works (Cincinnati).

“We know the risks of children being exposed to lead. Checking the water in child care facilities is simple and should be included as part of a comprehensive assessment that also looks at paint, soil, and dust hazards as currently prescribed in Michigan,” said Paul Haan, Executive Director of Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan. “This is especially important in smaller child care programs operating out of older homes that are likely to have lead service lines and fixtures with high lead content.”

“Our primary focus has always been on keeping low-income homeowners safe in their own homes,” said Aaron Grant, program manager at People Working Cooperatively. “But as we learn more about how the built environment can impact health, we want to do what we can to help provide safe places for all members of our community to live, work, play, and learn. Our partnership with EDF and Greater Cincinnati Water Works has helped extend our mission and given us valuable experiences we can incorporate into other programs that address the social determinants of health.” 

Overall, local partners tested more than 1,500 water samples, resulting in the replacement of 26 of 294 (9%) fixtures. Additionally, two lead service lines – the lead pipe connecting the main under the street to buildings – were identified and replaced at facilities in Chicago and a suburb of Cincinnati. When present, lead service lines contribute 50-75% of lead in drinking water.

While more than three out of four water samples had lead levels below 1 ppb, seven of the 11 facilities had at least one drinking water sample above EDF’s health-based benchmark for action of 3.8 ppb. Two of these facilities had at least one sample above 80 ppb of lead: 16 times higher than the lead level allowed in bottled water. Replacing fixtures generally was effective but did not always reduce levels to below our trigger for action, likely due to an inadequate NSF International standard allowing new brass fixtures to leach up to 5 ppb of lead.

Key recommendations from the report include:

  • 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 to identify 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.

To succeed in testing and reducing lead in water, child care facility operators, state licensing agencies, and health departments will need support from EPA, water utilities and NSF International, as well as the families they serve. The report provides recommendations for each of these critical audiences.  

“We hope the results of this project will provide clear next steps for child care facility operators and encourage the EPA to revise its outdated guidance to better protect young children from lead exposure,” said Lindsay McCormick, Chemicals and Health Project Manager at EDF.  “We suggest using 5 ppb as an interim action level to trigger remediation until the NSF International leachability standard for new fixtures is strengthened.”

Several states and cities have taken action to address this issue: Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and New York City require licensed child care facilities to test their drinking water for lead. Each of the requirements vary widely in terms of testing protocol, standard, corrective action, and communication to parents and staff.  The requirements often call for action when lead levels in fixture samples are over 15 ppb (EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule action level) or 20 ppb (EPA’s recommended trigger for action at schools and child care facilities).  Neither of these levels are sufficient to protect children. A lower limit is needed in this setting where there are so many children potentially affected. 

EPA provides guidance on testing methods in its voluntary “3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water.” However, the document has significant gaps in addressing lead in water at child care facilities – including little attention to lead service lines and the outdated trigger for action of 20 ppb. 

While renewed attention on lead in drinking water has spurred action and testing of drinking water in schools, child care facilities have gone relatively unnoticed. With the most vulnerable children spending a large portion of their day in child care, these facilities should be a priority for reducing exposure to lead from drinking water. 

Read the full report, “Putting kids first: Tackling lead in water at child care facilities,” at:

To get in contact with one of our partner child care facilities, please reach out to Keith Gaby (EDF), (202) 572-3336;

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