Despite laws aimed at reducing lead in drinking water, federal investigators think hundreds of thousands of children continue to drink lead-contaminated water at school. An internal report by the Environmental Protection Agency said that states have failed to enforce requirements that schools test drinking water for lead and that the EPA has not provided adequate guidance on what water coolers pose a health risk.
Lead is a powerful poison. Even traces can be particularly harmful to children because it can hurt development of the brain and nervous system. Children under 7 are considered to be particularly vulnerable.
Auditors in the EPA's inspector general's office estimated that, based on a limited survey, fewer than half of the school districts in the country may be testing thoroughly.
An examination of 13 school districts in the mid-Atlantic region revealed that three had not tested for lead while most of the others conducted inadequate tests.
"Our findings confirm that harmful amounts of lead exist in the drinking water provided by schools. Both the EPA and the states must be more aggressive in eliminating the health hazard imposed by lead in drinking water," said the report from the inspector general's office, made available by the agency Thursday.
Three of the school districts _ Pittsburgh, Richmond, Va., and Charleston, W.Va. _ had not tested for lead at the time of the survey.
The other 10 school districts were Philadelphia and Chester in Pennsylvania; Baltimore and Montgomery County in Maryland; Huntington and Jackson in West Virginia; Alexandria, Caroline County and Fairfax County in Virginia and Washington, D.C.
"Many schools were either not testing their water or, if they were testing, may have been testing improperly," said the report.
The EPA considers lead concentrations above 20 parts per billion to be hazardous to school children. The report said that the agency thinks every year more than 250,000 children are exposed to lead levels in drinking water that are high enough to impair their intellectual and physical development.
Nationwide, only Minnesota requires local school officials and day care centers to test their drinking water for lead, the auditors said. Other states only recommend such tests.
Congress passed a law in 1988 that requires EPA to issue testing guidelines and provide help to schools for the tests.
The report blamed both the EPA and states for lack of vigor.