A bumpy path to safer wa­ter at schools

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion -

The re­ports are as con­cern­ing as the photo is gross.

In Meck­len­burg County, Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg Schools ran tests on drink­ing foun­tains at 58 schools last fall and found 27 had un­ac­cept­ably high lev­els of lead, the Ob­server re­ported this month.

In Guil­ford County, a sam­pling of one tap per site at 99 Greens­boro-area schools found three with lead lev­els to the point at which the En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Agency rec­om­mends cor­rec­tive ac­tion, the News & Record re­ported last week.

Then there’s that photo, which is best not viewed within a half-hour of meals. It was taken by a South Meck­len­burg High School teacher and showed a bag with rust-col­ored liq­uid tied to a faucet. It didn’t ap­pear to be a faucet that stu­dents would be drink­ing out of, but the photo nev­er­the­less tied to­gether a trou­bling is­sue that schools face: old plumb­ing might be threat­en­ing the wa­ter our chil­dren drink.

How wor­ried should par­ents be with public schools start­ing Mon­day? Ex­perts told the Ob­server that it’s likely OK if stu­dents drink from the CMS foun­tains in question — es­pe­cially if they let the wa­ter run a bit — but no one seemed ready to say there’s no chance of ex­po­sure to un­safe lev­els of lead.

There’s at least one way to bet­ter en­sure safe wa­ter, how­ever: Test it. Last year, a group of Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can law­mak­ers tried to do just that for schools across North Carolina.

House Bill 825, a truly bi­par­ti­san ef­fort, re­quired wa­ter to be tested for lead at the state’s public schools and many day care fa­cil­i­ties. The bill rec­og­nized that lead lev­els ap­peared to be higher at schools built more than three decades ago, be­fore the fed­eral govern­ment re­stricted use of lead pipes in con­struc­tion. In turn, law­mak­ers laid out a thought­ful, tiered plan in which older schools would be tested first.

An­other plus: The plan called for mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter sup­pli­ers, not school dis­tricts, to do the test­ing and re­port­ing. In­ten­tion­ally or not, that would help avoid the is­sue of school dis­tricts be­ing re­luc­tant for any rea­son to re­port re­sults. In Char­lotte, CMS faced crit­i­cism for not re­port­ing lead-test­ing re­sults un­til the Ob­server and WCNC asked ques­tions. Su­per­in­ten­dent Clay­ton Wil­cox said of­fi­cials would have re­ported re­sults if they thought the wa­ter was harm­ful to stu­dents.

Promis­ing at it was, House Bill 825 died in com­mit­tee. Why? Pri­mary spon­sor Harry War­ren, a Repub­li­can from Rowan County, says that a big is­sue was money. “We had a re­spon­si­bil­ity to help them re­me­di­ate with fi­nan­cial back­ing,” War­ren told the Ob­server editorial board. Law­mak­ers, how­ever, were un­able to set­tle on how to pro­vide that fund­ing.

In the wake of the CMS and Guil­ford re­sults, War­ren wants to give the bill an­other push next ses­sion if he’s re­elected this fall. While CMS al­ready has com­mit­ted to test­ing wa­ter at the rest of its schools, other dis­tricts might not have the money or de­sire to do the same. Law­mak­ers should man­date they do.

Cour­tesy of South Meck teacher

A teacher at South Meck­len­burg High pho­tographed this faucet leak­ing rusty wa­ter to il­lus­trate health and safety con­cerns.

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