A new report (linked below) from the ACLU of Delaware indicates that while recent lead water testing conducted across all Delaware school districts found lead in every sample of every school that was tested, measures taken by the Delaware Department of Education (DDOE) to resolve the issue are insufficient. The ACLU-DE, Lead-Free Delaware, and other coalition partners are urging the DDOE to commit to introducing a new, safer drinking water standard for schools by January 1, 2024.
On September 12, the DDOE released its report on its resampling of the schools’ drinking water, notably after botching the first round of testing in 2020 in what the organization referred to as “missteps” and “issues with planning and communication.” Christina, Red Clay, and Colonial school districts were found to have the highest and most frequent levels of lead concentration in the water, although lead was found in every school. Several testing sites, which sampled water from kitchen faucets and drinking fountains, contained lead levels higher than those found in Flint, Michigan—a city known across the nation for its lead contamination water crisis.
Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Holodick pledged to install filters in schools, stating Delaware’s commitment to a “Filter First” approach in May 2023. “Filter First” refers to installing filtration systems in schools at all consumption points to proactively address lead contamination. However, rather than reaffirming the commitment to filtering all the drinking water, the DDOE report indicates that only testing points with the highest lead levels will be filtered, shut off, replaced, or have signs indicating that they aren’t safe for consumption. This means that faucets and fountains with up to 7.5 ppb of lead can be left unaltered for children to drink from.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that drinking fountains in schools not exceed 1 part per billion (ppb), which is much lower than the action level of 7.5 ppb set by the Department of Education,” said Sarah Bucic MSN, RN and Amy Roe, Ph.D. of Lead-Free Delaware. “We are calling for a health-based approach to drinking water in schools.”
The Center for Disease Control (CDC), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the World Health Organization (WHO) all agree that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water and that lead contamination is particularly dangerous for young children. WHO’s August 2023 advisory on lead poisoning stresses that “there is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects,” explaining that children’s bodies absorb 4-5 times more lead than adults when exposed. Serious complications from lead poisoning can include damage to the brain and central nervous system that can cause intellectual disabilities and antisocial behavioral disorders—drastically impacting a child’s success in school.
As part of a 2022 amendment to the Delaware Code (SS1 for SB270 amending Section 1 Chapter 23, Title 14), the Delaware Department of Education and Department of Public Health are required to co-develop a Standard of Good Repair that would introduce annual evaluations of school district facilities. This will include regular inspections, repairs and maintenance to keep schools safe for students and staff. The departments have until January 1, 2024 to create the Standard of Good Repair. As of now, there has been no indication that it will include a safe threshold for lead levels in the drinking water, nor a formal commitment to a “Filter First” policy.
“We must stop normalizing the poisoning of our children in the very buildings we send them to learn and thrive. Lead in water tends to fluctuate dramatically, which means that a tap testing below 7.5 ppb one minute can dispense lead in the hundreds, and even thousands, ppb the next,” said Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou, co-founder of the Campaign for Lead Free Water. “For this reason, a proactive Filter First approach is the only way to prevent chronic and acute exposures to lead in school water, immediately and effectively.”
Delawareans are currently petitioning for a threshold of no more than 1 ppb of lead in the water, as recommended by the AAP. Rather than spot-treating problem areas and intentionally allowing some lead to remain in the water, advocates are urging the DDOE to filter all school drinking water.