Now, drink the water

November 09, 2007

From an environmental point of view, the decision by Baltimore schools CEO Andres Alonso not to keep trying to get the lead out of school drinking fountains and to put bottled water in coolers in all schools may be disappointing. After all, the packaging and disposal of bottled water are taking an increasing toll on the environment. So it seems a shame to add to that burden when good tap water is available, as it is in Baltimore.

But the coolers are somewhat more environmentally friendly than individual bottles, and after 15 years of fighting a losing battle, switching to coolers is more realistic and practical. With no guarantee that dangerous levels of lead could be eliminated from school fountains, Mr. Alonso made the right call to protect students' health.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency set things in motion when it required lead testing of school water in 1988. Baltimore's results were completed by 1992, and several schools were found to have lead in their water fountains. Most were shut off, but gradually some were turned back on. By 2003, lead was still present in some of the fountains that should have remained closed, and the city's Health Department ordered that all school fountains be turned off and replaced temporarily by bottled water in coolers.

Since then, the fountains have gone through a regimen of repairs and testing. Many have been restored, but a lot of schools have also continued to use the coolers. As part of the ongoing testing, the Health Department randomly chose 10 schools and tested water from their working fountains - a total of 84 - last month. Water from 74 fountains passed the test with minimal lead levels, but 10 fountains had water with unacceptably high levels.

Keeping ahead of pipes and other parts that might send lead into the water has been a constant guessing game, costing the school system at least $675,000 a year. For that amount of money, coolers can be supplied to all the schools, without health concerns.

Engineering advances might make fountain water safer, but for now, bottled water is the safest way to quench students' thirst.

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