A new federal audit of the region's school systems -- including looks at Baltimore City and Montgomery County -- indicates that schools in Maryland and across the country are still struggling to lower students' exposure to lead in drinking water.
In a study encompassing school systems in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, auditors for the Environmental Protection Agency this year examined how schools were implementing the 1988 Lead Contamination Control Act to eliminate lead from drinking water.
The results were not encouraging. State officials told the auditors that many school systems -- including as many as 50 percent of all Maryland schools -- were not regularly testing their water for lead.
Those that were testing often found "dangerous" levels of lead -- more than 50 parts ber billion -- in their drinking water. And those schools that did find lead in their water did not always correct the problem, according to the report.
The report found that 70 percent of the schools reviewed had refrigerated drinking fountains that contained lead parts and were thus contaminating the schools' drinking water. Moreover, 60 percent of the school systems examined had lead contamination from non-refrigerated bubbler fountains and plumbing.
For their part, school systems criticized conflicting EPA regulations and the apparent lack of interest by the federal government in funding an aggressive lead-reduction drive.
Children are particularly sensitive to lead, according to P. Ronald Gandolfo, the EPA inspector general for the Middle Atlantic region. Exposure to lead in water can result in reduced IQ scores, impaired learning and language skills, loss of hearing and reduced attention span, according to the EPA.
"A dose of lead that would have little effect on an adult can have a big effect on a child," the report reads. "Their bodies are developing, and as a result, they absorb and retain more lead than adults."
The report, which was completed in September, said that up to 250,000 children a year nationwide are exposed to unhealthful lead levels.
In Baltimore, federal auditors found that 11 schools had high levels of lead in their water, according to John Green, assistant superintendent for facilities for the city school system.
Ironically, it is the newer schools that had the most problems, according to Donald Torres, a city health inspector. He noted that lead used in plumbing -- such as in the solder used at joints -- was not yet neutralized and coated by residues from water running through the system. Thus, he said, lead could leach into the water sitting in the pipes.
Fixing the problem was simple. At all 11 schools, the schools' plumbing was flushed morning and evening to remove any lead that might have leached into water sitting in the pipes, Mr. Green said.
In Montgomery County, school officials tested 1,113 drinking fountains, and found that 32 percent of the machines had problems with lead contamination. Many had lead-lined storage tanks for refrigerated water, according to the audit.
"We found the contamination of coolers to be quite widespread," said Brian Porter, a Montgomery County school system spokesman. "We fixed or replaced 300 or so."
The county had initiated its testing program before being approached by the EPA, he said.
The auditors also criticized their own agency -- saying that it was a year late in providing an accurate list of hazardous water coolers and that the EPA has not used its full authority to force schools to eliminate lead from drinking water.
Baltimore schools and lead
Water in the following schools was found to have exceeded federal guidelines of 50 parts per billion of lead before the system was flushed. This chart shows lead levels since daily flushing of the schools' plumbing began:
Hamilton Middle less than 1 ppb
Robert Poole Middle less than 1 ppb
Mount Royal Elementary less than 1 ppb
Lyndhurst Elementary 15 ppb
Dunbar Middle 11 ppb
Canton Middle less than 1 ppb
Frederick Elementary less than 1 ppb
William S. Baer Exceptional less than 1 ppb
Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary 20 ppb
Waverly Elementary 12 ppb
Thomas Johnson Elementary less than 1 ppb
Source: Baltimore City Health Department