Lead in School Drinking Water—What Families Need to Know

sb550-fountainNote: Illinois PTA has an advocacy campaign running now through January 10, 2017 to urge the Illinois House to join the Illinois Senate in passing SB550, a bill that would require testing every unique drinking water source in all Illinois schools and report high lead levels to families.

If you were looking to make a pipe, lead looks to be just about the perfect metal to use. It’s fairly soft as metals go, so it’s easy to work with. It doesn’t react strongly with water like iron or steel, so water running in the pipe or in the ground around the pipe won’t make the pipe corrode to a significant. It’s relatively abundant and has been mined for millennia. It seems like the perfect metal for the job; so much so that the word plumbing comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. There’s just one problem with lead—exposure to it causes numerous health problems for adults and especially children.

How Lead Gets in Drinking Water

While lead doesn’t react strongly to water like iron or steel, it still corrodes (like iron rusts) when exposed to water, especially if the water has high acidity or low mineral content. Lead poisoning in ancient Rome was not due to its lead pipes, as the high calcium levels in the water formed a protective layer inside the pipes between the lead pipe and the water. It was the use of lead cookware and as an additive in food (e.g., as a preservative in wine) that resulted in lead poisoning.

In the United States, lead pipes were used not only in indoor plumbing but also in the line that ran from the water main to the house. When copper pipes were used, they were often connected with brass fittings (which contain small amounts of lead to make them easier to make) or with lead solder. The longer that water is exposed to these lead-containing items, the higher the lead level in the water. This is why testing for lead in water uses the “first draw” (i.e., water that has sat in the pipe for a while) for the sample.

Homes and buildings built after 1986 are less likely to have lead pipes, brass fixtures and fittings, or lead solder. That is due to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) using the Safe Drinking Water Act to reduce the maximum allowable lead content of pipes, fittings, fixtures, and solder in order to be considered safe to use for drinking water.

Lead Exposure Standards

The EPA is required under the Safe Drinking Water Act to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no health effects are likely to occur. These are non-enforceable health goals based only on possible health risks and are known as Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs). For lead in drinking water, the MCLG is zero because any exposure to lead can lead to health issues and because lead bioaccumulates (i.e., builds up over time) in the body.

Since drinking water suppliers likely cannot completely eliminate lead, EPA has set an “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb). One part per billion is like one grain of sand in a sandbox, one drop of ink in a 14,000 gallon backyard swimming pool, or one second in 32 years. The 15 ppb action level was set based on costs and benefits of removing lead from drinking water, not on safety like the MCLG above.

When measuring lead exposure in people, a blood sample is tested. For adults, the level at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends taking action is 10 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL). For children, the level is only 5 μg/dL due to the increased health effects of lead on their development and their smaller body size.

It is important to note that drinking water is not the only way that children are exposed to lead. Lead in paint, dust, sole, air, and food may also be sources of lead exposure for children. EPA estimates that drinking water can make up to 20% or more of a person’s exposure to lead. For infants who consume mostly powdered formula mixed with water, 40% to 60% of their exposure can come from drinking water.

Health Effects of Lead on Children

Even low levels of lead exposure in children can result in:

  • Behavior and learning problems
  • Permanent intellectual disability
  • Reduced ability to pay attention
  • Slowed growth
  • Hearing problems
  • Kidney failure
  • Anemia

In addition, lead builds up in our bodies over time, where it is stored in bones along with calcium. During pregnancy, lead is released from the mother’s bones along with maternal calcium and is used to help form the bones of the fetus. This is especially true if the mother does not have enough calcium in her diet. Lead in the mother’s bloodstream can also cross the placental barrier, exposing the fetus to lead. This in utero lead exposure can result in reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth.

School Drinking Water and Lead

As noted above, lead levels in drinking water increase over time as the water sits without moving. For schools, this effect can be particularly important because of how drinking water is used in schools. Afternoon and evening activities at a school are often limited to only part of the school building, meaning that water fountains and sinks in other parts of the building do not run water from the end of the school day until the beginning of the next day. Water is also likely to sit in pipes over weekends and school holidays and breaks.

What You Can Do

The first thing to do is join Illinois PTA’s campaign to pass SB550 in the Illinois House. This bill, which has already passed the Illinois Senate, would require every school in Illinois—public, private, and parochial—to test for lead in the water of every unique drinking water source and to report high lead levels to families. The campaign has a prewritten e-mail to send to your Illinois representative urging them to support SB550 during the lame duck session on January 9-10, 2017. All you need to do is provide your name, contact information, and address (so Voter Voice can look up who your representative is for you). It only takes a minute of your time to speak up for safe school drinking water.

In addition, the EPA has an information page on lead in drinking water, as does the CDC. EPA also provides a Safe Drinking Water Hotline that you can call or e-mail to get your questions answered. The CDC has a general lead exposure information page and information on how to prevent children’s exposure to lead.

Illinois PTA Advocacy Day in Springfield a Big Success

It was a beautiful fall day in Springfield on Tuesday as Illinois PTA members gathered for Advocacy Day. The Illinois PTA table in the capitol rotunda welcomed advocates and greeted passersby all day. By the end of the day, 79 legislators or their staff had had face-to-face contact with Illinois PTA. If you couldn’t make it to Springfield on November 15th, you can still contact your legislators and the governor through our online campaign.


Illinois PTA advocates were speaking out on three focus issues throughout the day:

  • The lack of a state budget for the last 17 months
  • Senate Bill 550, which would require testing for lead in drinking water in all Illinois schools
  • House Bill 5726, which would ban the sale of energy drinks to minors

The budget issue was generally greeted with a lot of sympathy and head nodding, but also a bit of weariness as legislators and staff have likely been hearing about the issue on an almost daily basis for the last year and a half. Our other two issues drew much more interest, and if you add your voice to PTA’s one voice through our online Advocacy Day campaign, we may be able to get both bills passed during the veto session.


Participating in the online campaign is easy and only takes a couple of minutes. Each letter is already written for you, though you can modify it if you wish to add information on how these issues are affecting your family, your schools, or your community. Then add your signature, type in your e-mail address so your legislators can get back to you, and include your zip code (and maybe your street address) so Voter Voice can look up your state representative and state senator for you. Finish off by hitting the “Continue” button, confirming your contact information, and sending off the letters.

Help protect Illinois children and families by speaking up today. The fall veto session only runs through next week, so the faster you act, the more time there is for legislators to act on these critical issues.


Helping Your Child Deal with Anxiety

anxiety-1337383_960_720-2Every parent has dealt with a child who is anxious about something, be it the first day of school, a piano recital, or meeting the new kid next door. Anxiety is certainly a part of every person’s life from time to time, but anxiety that is too strong or that happens a lot can become overwhelming and prevent a child from being able to function.

More Common Than You Think

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.1% of adults have suffered from anxiety in the past year, and 22.8% of those adults (4.1% overall) have suffered from severe anxiety, and the average age for the onset of anxiety was 11 years old. For children, the numbers are higher, with 31.9% having anxiety disorders and 8.3% of them with severe anxiety. Anxiety is the most common form of childhood mental illness.

Among the most common forms of anxiety (with links to information on each from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America) are:

Two Questions to Ask Yourself

Researchers studying kindergartners found that two questions parents can ask themselves about their young child that can indicate that a child may develop an anxiety disorder in the future. Those questions are:

  • Is your child more shy or anxious than other children their age?
  • Is your child more worried than other children their age?

The researchers found that parents are often tuned in to their child’s behavior, but are not able to specifically identify what the issue is. Also note that these questions target persistent behavior over time and not passing anxieties that are a part of growing up.

Knowing the Signs and Symptoms

As stated earlier, every child and adult experiences anxiety from time to time. Most, even those who live through traumatic events, don’t develop anxiety disorders. For those that do, the signs include:

  • Excessive worry most days of the week for weeks on end
  • Trouble sleeping at night or sleepiness during the day
  • Restlessness or fatigue during waking hours
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Complaining of stomach aches
  • Withdrawal from social activities

What You Can Do for Your Anxious Child

It is difficult to watch your child struggle and suffer, but attempting to anticipate your child’s fears and to try to protect them from those fears can actually exacerbate a child’s anxiety. The advice to families of children suffering from anxiety is to help them learn to deal with anxiety, not to avoid it.

The Child Mind Institute has a list of ten things to do and not do when dealing with an anxious child. PsychCentral has a list of nine things for families of anxious children to try. The two lists parallel each other, and key points include:

  • Don’t avoid things just because they make your child anxious.
  • Stop reassuring your child.
  • Respect feelings, but don’t empower them.
  • Don’t ask leading questions.
  • Teach your child to be a thought detective.
  • Allow your child to worry.
  • Try to model healthy ways of handling anxiety.

Be sure to check out both lists for more information on these and other suggestions. Don’t forget to mention anxiety issues when talking with your child’s pediatrician. Anxiety is a treatable mental disorder, but far too many children and adults do not get treatment.

Free Popular Events Idea Booklet from USDA Team Nutrition

team-nutrition-events-booklet-coverWe all want our children to be active and to make healthy food choices, and PTAs are always looking for new program ideas. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service’s Team Nutrition, which supports improving Child Nutrition Programs, has collected 20 themed events from real-life events at Team Nutrition schools in a free booklet you can order in hardcopy or download as a PDF.

These tested events aim to connect the school, home, cafeteria, classroom, and community to improve child nutrition. The events are grouped as appropriate for elementary schools, middle schools, or both. The events include both stand-alone events that PTAs could run as well as classroom projects for teachers and school cafeteria events that PTAs could support and encourage their school to use. The booklet includes handouts for specific events and those for any event. Events include:

If your PTA is looking for a ready-to-use program on healthy habits, be sure to check out this free booklet from Team Nutrition.