Lead in Pipes in Massachusetts Schools Still Causing Concerns Among Parents and Students
By Addie Davidson
Schools across the country, especially in older cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Boston all recently have had to change their piping due to the high levels of lead that seep out of the old pipes and contaminate drinking water. Lead is most dangerous for children, so in the past year, many schools enacted various policies to prevent students from consuming water from the old pipes and had to renovate their drinking water systems.
In 2016, the United States Environmental Protection Agency checked over 1,000 schools in Massachusetts for unsafe levels of lead in their water pipes. The discovery of unsafe levels of lead in the water forced public, charter, and private schools to take their water fountains and many sinks offline.
The use of lead pipes for water plumbing is a now outdated and dangerous system, but lead pipes are still prevalent in old cities such as Boston.
Pediatrician Harry Broome explained that high levels of lead are dangerous for all people, but that the effects of lead are particularly harmful to young and developing children.
“Kids under eight have the biggest risk if they are exposed to lead,” he said. “High exposure can lead to stunted growth, anemia, and permanent brain damage.”
Monica James, a nurse, and mother of a kindergartener and a fourth grader at Sheehan Elementary School, a public school just outside of Boston, said she is concerned about the harmful effects of high lead exposure on children.
James said that a couple of the water fountains at her children’s’ elementary school are back online. However, the majority remain off.
“The lead pipes shouldn’t be there,” she said. “I tell my kids to drink out of the bubblers instead of the fountains but they probably still drink out of the fountains.
“All of the kids in the school probably do because it’s fun.”
Parents aren’t the only ones concerned with changing old habits. Students of all ages have had to make changes in their daily school days to accommodate their school’s offline water source.
James’s daughter, Caroline James, 9, complained about her school’s rules and regulations regarding water.
“We have water fountains all around the school, but we’re not allowed to drink out of most of them,” she said. “No one in my class really knows why, but it’s annoying.”
Lori Brown, the nurse at Sheehan Elementary School, said that the school recently took precautions for their students’ health by installing new water fountains with filters.
“Any new fountains installed have filters in them, and we have a new fountain with a fill up for water bottles,” she said. “The water that I use in the health room is processed thru a Brita Filter.”
Even though older students might not have high risks for life-threatening factors due to drinking lead-contaminated water, teen and adult exposure to lead can cause migraines, loss of appetite, fatigue, and lack of concentration.
Chloe Shea, a 12th-grader at Boston Latin School, a school in the Boston Public School system, in the South End neighborhood, said her school made many changes with its water system in the past year due to the problem with lead pipes.
“Last year we had to get water bubblers all around our school because there was lead in the pipes and they had to fix all of the water fountains,” she said. “Now we have new water fountains, and they beep if the filter needs to be cleaned, so you know not to drink out of it, but I still question them even if they aren’t beeping because my school is so old.”
Many schools are back online, but some parents and students are still very concerned about the cleanliness of the water.
“They turned off all of the fountains and then replaced them with water bubblers, but now we have water fountains again, and the water bubblers are gone,” Shea said. “I personally won’t drink out of the water fountains unless I’m desperate.”
Because the highest risk is for very young children, some parents and community members expressed their worries about smaller daycares and preschools in the greater Boston area, which might not have had the extensive testing that the public schools implemented.
At Circle of Friends Preschool, located in Framingham, Massachusetts, a city in the greater Boston area, tap water is still the primary water source for students.
Sarah Diconza, the preschool’s director, said the State of Massachusetts did not require Circle of Friends to have their water tested.
“We did have our water tested several years ago, and it tested fine, but the state never made us,” she said. “We just use the town water.”
Isabelle Tambascio, a teacher at the preschool, said the preschool does not have any water fountains, but the school has recently added Brita filters to many of their sinks.
“We don’t have a water fountain, but we use the tap water filtered by a Brita at lunch and snack times and put pitchers on the table for the kids to pour into little cups,” she said. “But even with the Britas, some parents send their kids to school with their own water bottles.”
The city of Boston’s water and sewage commission provided a map of buildings across the city historically built with lead pipes. To check any building in the city of Boston for lead pipes, go to bwsc.org.
A map of the schools in the greater Boston area which had offline water fountains in 2016.
Chloe Shea filling up her water bottle in the new water fountains at Boston Latin Academy.