Most Connecticut Schools Are Not Required to Test Water for Lead

Lead poisoning can be extremely harmful to children and could cause brain damage, but few schools know what the lead level in their drinking water is because the state only requires a small percentage of schools to test for it. 

The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters began asking questions about water testing on the heels of the Flint Michigan water crisis and learned that only about 15 percent of schools in the state are required to test their water for lead. 

Meriden officials said the cost to test water is only about $8 per sample, It takes about a minute to collect a sample. Yet, statewide testing just isn't happening.

One woman who knows first-hand the effects of lead poisoning of a child is Patricia Rodriguez. Her 3-year-old daughter, Isavella, got lead poisoning from lead paint in the house she used to rent in Meriden. 

Rodriguez said she learned about lead exposure after noticing her daughter getting sick frequently. 

“It was just the way that she was acting,” Rodriguez said. “She kept on getting sick frequently.” 

A trip to the doctor found dangerously high levels of lead in her blood. 

“11.5 was her level for lead,” Rodriquez said. 

That's more than double the amount of lead the Department of public health considers poisonous to a child. 

“When we get a report of a child with an elevated blood lead level over 5 micrograms per deciliter, our health department is required to act, per state statute,” Lea Crown, director of Health and Human Services for the City of Meriden, said. 

Elevated lead levels are extremely harmful to children and can cause brain damage. Rodriguez is worried about the long-term effects lead poisoning will have on Isavella. 

“It can cause her to end up with learning disabilities, it can cause her to have not a good memory where she has memory loss,” Rodriguez said. 

Out of more than 1,100 schools in Connecticut, officials with the state said only 170 of them are required to test their water for lead. 

“These schools that are on the list that you reference are individual public water systems,” Lori Mathieu, water section chief for the state Department of Public Health, said. “They are responsible to conduct the testing as a public water system.” 

In the past five years, 17 of those schools came back over the legal limit for allowable lead contaminants. 

State officials said all other schools in the state get their water from public water systems, like MDC or Aquarion. However, that doesn’t mean their drinking water can't be contaminated with lead. 

According to the EPA, lead contamination of drinking water usually comes from corroded plumbing and it wasn't until parts of the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act implemented in 2014 that virtually all lead was prohibited in pipes and plumbing. 

Therefore, unless a school was built in the last two years, it’s likely to have plumbing with lead components. 

“Water fountains where kids could go take a drink could still have lead within those coils, within the fountain itself, within the fixtures themselves,” Mathieu said. d

The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters asked Mathieu why the state wouldn’t have schools periodically test water for lead if the problem is with the plumbing and the water source and she said “it's not a requirement in the State of Connecticut.” 

Although Meriden schools are not required to test, they did in the Spring after 2,200 children across the state turned up with dangerously high blood lead levels in 2014, likely caused by lead paint. Of those children, 103 were from Meriden. 

“Were actually top, in the top five, so that's why Meriden was proactive in deciding to test the water in the schools,” Crown said. 

Meriden officials said they tested every school in the city and found that the water had acceptable levels of lead. 

While Meriden is proactive, the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters found none of the other top cities for lead poisoning, New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Waterbury, are required by the state to test their school's water either. 

New Haven voluntarily did so for the first time in June and test results showed a water sample taken from a drinking fountain at Mauro Sheridan Magnet School in New Haven tested at 26ppb, which is almost double the safe limit of 15ppb. 

They re-tested that water fountain several weeks later and samples were lower, at 12ppb. 

“The number can go up and down and to do consistent testing is the only way you can figure that out to see what is actually taking place,” Mathieu said. 

Waterbury hasn't tested school water in six years, but agreed to test some schools last month after our request. 

Among the schools tested was John Gilmartin Elementary school, which was first tested in 2010 when the school opened. Reports show it had virtually no lead in the water sampled then. 

New tests show 11ppb, which is still under the limit of 15ppb, but is has gone up in the last six years. 

After our continued requests, the city of Hartford agreed to test school water for lead Tuesday and the results are not yet in.

Rodriguez said she is focusing on helping Isavella get well again. 

Although her daughter was on medication for months as a result of lead poisoning, she still has lead in her blood. 

“They should do everything in their power to make sure that it's lead free,” Rodriguez said. 

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