Study Identifies Building Risk Factors for Unsafe Lead Levels


Researchers from the University of Amherst have determined the top risk factors for elevated lead levels in drinking water at school and daycare centers. The study, published in the American Water Works Association journal Water Science, found the most telling characteristic was building age, with facilities built in the 1960s and 1970s at the greatest risk for dangerous lead levels in drinking water.

According to the study’s authors, no level of lead exposure is safe. In previous studies, lead exposure has been associated with serious health issues in children, such as brain damage, developmental delays, and hearing problems. For this investigation, researchers sought to identify key risk factors involved in elevated lead levels in school drinking water that may help predict which schools could have dangerous lead levels.

To do this, researchers compared water lead-level data to various characteristics that could influence the levels, such as the type of buildings and their location, the chemistry of the water supply, and the local water treatment process. The study’s data came from the Assistance Program for Lead in School Drinking Water, a MassDEP and UMass Amherst water monitoring collaboration that began in 2016. The initiative has gathered information from over 1,500 schools and childcare facilities.

"As of last year, around 60 percent [of Massachusetts schools] have had sampling done and reported to this public database, but 40 percent have not, though each month more schools and childcare facilities are testing," explained study author Emily Kumpel, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UMass Amherst. "That was what we were trying to get at with this model: of those that haven't yet tested, can we prioritize the places that we might need to look at the most? Using these factors, can we then predict where we should make sure to follow up?"

The study found that the building's age was the most important contributing factor to the risk of elevated lead levels. This is partly due to legislation passed over the years to improve school water safety. According to Kumpel, following the implementation of stricter regulations in 1986, there was a significant reduction in lead levels: 50 percent of water samples from newer buildings contained 1 ppb or less of lead, and only 4.6 percent surpassed the 15 ppb threshold.

Schools built in the 1960s and 1970s, constituting approximately 30 percent of those tested, showed the highest likelihood of elevated lead levels in their initial water output from faucets and fountains. In these buildings, 50 percent of the water samples collected at first use had lead concentrations of at least 2.8 ppb and 2.9 ppb for the 1960s and 1970s constructions. Furthermore, 16 percent of water outlets in 1960s structures and 19.5 percent in 1970s buildings exhibited lead levels exceeding 15 ppb during the first draw.

"That means that if you go into a facility built in the '60s or '70s and are the first one to get a glass of water in the morning or after a long school break, you'd have a high chance of it having a dangerously high level of lead. However, if the tap was flushed or had been used throughout the day, this would drop substantially. This is why flushing or other remediation actions are important," Kumpel said.

Schools built in the 1950s and 1980s also had a slightly lower but elevated risk, reflecting certain construct decisions made during those periods.  

The study offered technical assistance to the buildings where lead was detected, including help applying for grants for water bottle filling stations. For parents concerned about the lead levels at their children’s schools, Kumpel said to stay informed. Depending on the state, data on lead levels may be public information.

"Massachusetts has made the data available in a public database," she says. "See if your child's school or daycare has been tested. There is this free testing program, so, as a parent, it could be advocating that your childcare provider or school sign up for the testing program and get that information."