Md. day-care centers, private schools lag in testing water for lead

July 11, 1991|By Liz Bowie

Only 12 percent of Maryland's day-care centers and private schools have tested their water for lead, a metal that in low levels can cause lowered IQ, shortened attention span and poor classroom performance.

The centers and schools have failed to test the water in drinking fountains, bathrooms and kitchens, despite the urging of Congress in a federal lead-control law in 1988 and more recently the state Department of the Environment.

Although it is impossible to quantify, the potential risk of a child consuming lead in water at school is sig

nificant. Evelyn Mauss, an author of the council's report, said that 30 percent of the water coolers in one unnamed district in Maryland had levels above the current standard.

The state's public schools have been far more diligent in testing their water: All but the city of Baltimore and Somerset County have completed the work, according to Department of the Environment figures.

However, the city has tested about half its schools, said Douglas J. Neilson, spokesman for the school system. Testing is costly and time-consuming, he said, because there are an average of 60 sources of drinking water in each school.

Although Congress recommended the testing in 1988, many school systems nationwide have yet to comply, according to a survey released yesterday by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group.

The group said compliance has been "glaringly inadequate" and urged that the testing become mandatory rather than voluntary.

Until 1986, lead solder was widely used in plumbing, including the lining of water fountains. Small levels of lead can leach into water, particularly when it sits in a pipe.

Children are at particular risk to being harmed by exposure to lead, the council report said.

Less than 1 percent of day-care facilities nationally have tested their water for lead. In Maryland, only 5 percent of 1,455 day-care centers and 23 percent of private schools have done the tests.

Mr. Neilson said the city is finding, on average, one source of lead-contaminated water in each school tested. When a problem has been identified, he said, the water cooler has been disconnected or school officials have flushed the water frequently enough so that lead does not build up in the pipes.

"Parents are not really aware [of the problem]," said Eddie Fentress, acting chairman of the Baltimore District Advisory Committee, a parent advisory board. However, she said, it is an issue that concerns her. "I think something needs to be done about it."

Lead in drinking water is not the primary source of lead poisoning in children, and most children are not likely to drink large quantities of water at school, said Michael Sullivan, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment. However, drinking water with lead can increase a child's cumulative exposure.

"We feel very strongly that all schools should be testing for lead," Mr. Sullivan said.

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