JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — Children in Missouri will be better protected from lead poisoning under a state legislative bill that would require schools to virtually remove toxic substances from drinking water.
The House Conservation and Natural Resources Committee heard last week the bill, which would require schools to test drinking water, remove old coolers and filter water where lead was found. The goal is for lead levels in drinking water to be less than one part per billion. The state’s current action level on drinking water is 15 times that.
Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, told her colleagues about the bill that the legislation would require schools to test their water before relieving. Often, adding a filter is the best solution, she said.
“Filtering is much easier than pulling out all the pipes,” Bailey said.
Lead is a toxic heavy metal that can have irreversible effects on the body’s organ systems. Children are especially vulnerable and may experience slow growth and development and hearing, speech and learning problems from exposure, even at low levels.
“This is really a kids-first bill,” said Rep. Paula Brown, D-St. Lewis, who created legislation with Bailey.
The state government has provided funding from federal grants for schools that voluntarily test water. But if the bill passes, Missouri would distinguish itself from its counterparts in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska for requiring such a low level of action.
The prevalence of lead poisoning has steadily declined over the past few decades. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 40 years ago, more than 80 percent of children had blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter, more than double what modern health professionals consider elevated. But while lead has been banned in gasoline, paint and plumbing for decades, it still exists in older homes and buildings.
Between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018, more than 2,500 Missouri children — just over 3 percent of children tested — were found to have blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter. In the latest report from Nebraska, 300 children (less than 1 percent) had elevated blood lead levels. More than 500 children in Kansas — almost 2 percent — have elevated blood lead levels, according to the state’s latest report. In Iowa, officials updated their definition of “elevated” blood lead levels based on federal guidance, with more than 1,100 children having blood lead levels greater than 3.5 micrograms per deciliter in 2020.
Eradicating residual environmental lead has been a priority for President Joe Biden’s administration, sparking a national discussion about the legacy of lead contamination. The infrastructure law passed by Congress and signed by Biden last year allocated $15 billion to replace major service lines over the next five years.
Bailey and her legislative backers noted that federal COVID-19 relief funds could help pay for Missouri school efforts. The House Budget subcommittee discussed adding $20 million to lead filtering in an appropriations bill still being weighed by the larger budget committee.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that lead levels in school drinking do not exceed one part per billion because it is the lowest detectable level, although there is no known safe blood lead concentration. The EPA requires public water systems to take action if more than 10 percent of routine samples have lead levels at or above 15 parts per billion.
According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, the primary lead hazard for children in Missouri is exposure to degraded lead paint.
“We’ve been working on it,” said Bridget Sanderson, Missouri’s environmental agency administrator and supporter of the legislation. “Now we just need to update our aging infrastructure to help protect our children.”
Lead in school drinking water is common in every state across the country. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that 44 percent of schools in the 12 states studied in 2019 had at least one water sample test above the state’s action level for lead concentrations.
Some states are taking a more direct approach. Lawmakers in Michigan and Colorado have introduced bills under the Natural Resources Defense Council’s “Filter First” model legislation that would require schools to install filters without having to be tested. Proponents of the strategy say installing filters is more cost-effective than testing water sources.
Missouri’s legislation initially followed the same pattern.
But that’s a temporary solution, not a permanent solution, said Joan Matthews, who leads the Urban Water Management Team at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Matthews developed model legislation.
“The moonshot program is to remove lead from pipes, fixtures, fittings and solder,” Matthews said. “Just get out of the lead.”
The Missouri Filter First Coalition says true lead-free schools should not use any lead in their plumbing. But the federal definition of “lead-free” in the Lead Reduction in Drinking Water Act, which went into effect in 2014, allows a weighted average lead content of 0.25% for the parts of piping and fittings that come into contact with water in any system that provides water for human consumption.
“I guess it’s a temporary approach,” Matthews said, “until we get completely lead-free plumbing.”