By Emily Hoerner May 07, 2023
When officials from the Winnetka School District 36 on Chicago’s North Shore discovered traces of lead in school drinking water after complying with a state testing law in 2017, they quickly jumped into action.
For any water sample showing lead levels above 5 parts per billion, they notified parents and took corrective action by shutting down or curbing use of the water fixture. Then the district went further, conducting three more rounds of testing and budgeting millions to remediate any lead levels above 5 parts per billion.
Roughly 80 miles to the west, the process at Rockford School District 205 began much the same: After testing, the district alerted parents to any fixture with water lead levels above 5 parts per billion, as required under the law.
School officials then explained to parents that while the law “does not require any action,” they were exploring additional steps to keep students and staff safe. Ultimately, they decided to install lead filters, shut down or limit the use of any fixture that registered above 15 parts per billion of lead, three times the level chosen by their peers in Winnetka.
Despite the districts’ divergent approaches, both went above and beyond the requirements of the 2017 testing law, which mandated only that schools test their water, send the results to the Illinois Department of Public Health, and directly notify parents of any result higher than 5 parts per billion. The language in the law did not specify what actions schools should take to reduce lead levels and provided no funding for remediation.
The law did say that IDPH was to provide guidance on mitigation strategies. But the agency has offered shifting instructions on what was supposed to happen following the lead tests, sometimes telling districts that they had to work to reduce any lead they found and sometimes that mitigation was simply recommended.
The result was a patchwork of responses from Illinois schools, the Tribune found. Some districts spent millions to greatly reduce or eliminate the lead in their school drinking water, while others reported taking little action, even though the toxic metal can hamper brain development even in very small amounts.
Traces of the metal were identified in thousands of sinks, drinking fountains and other fixtures at roughly 1,800 public schools throughout the state as a result of the 2017 law requiring testing, the Tribune found after obtaining testing data from the state.
To learn what steps public school districts took after identifying lead in school drinking water, the Tribune called, filed public records requests and sent surveys to the more than 400 districts that reported finding lead levels above 5 parts per billion at their children’s schools. More than 200 districts responded to the surveys and interview requests.
The law did not address how or when to embark on mitigation efforts, and at least some school administrators who tried to figure it out on their own said they sometimes struggled to sort through a mess of available recommendations.
Some federal guidance suggests remediating at levels as high as 15 or 20 parts per billion. Illinois legislators set the parental notification threshold at above 5 parts per billion, which is also the maximum allowed in bottled water. The American Academy of Pediatrics says school drinking water should test at or below 1 part per billion, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains no amount of lead is safe.
A few months after the Illinois testing law took effect, the IDPH website posted a link to guidance stating that mitigation strategies must be followed “for all plumbing fixtures identified with any level of lead.” The agency now says its policy is to recommend mitigation for any detectable lead, not require it.
The conflicting advice helps explain how officials in Winnetka and Rockford could take such different approaches. In Winnetka, school administrators in 2017 identified water lead levels above 5 parts per billion at four schools, including a fixture with 57.9 parts per billion of lead. Through four rounds of testing, Winnetka school officials notified parents of more than 50 water samples that registered above 5 ppb. The district decided to adopt a long-term goal of addressing any fixture above 5 ppb.
“It’s definitely a priority for parents; they want to make sure kids’ drinking water is safe,” said Brad Goldstein, the district’s chief financial officer.
At the Rockford district, both the size of the district and the lead problems were much larger. Testing identified more than 500 samples at 30 schools with water lead levels above 5 parts per billion, according to state data and additional documents obtained from the district. One of the highest recorded results in the district was a drinking fountain at West View Elementary, where a sample identified a water lead level of 1,430 parts per billion.
“We felt that 15 parts per billion was a perfectly acceptable place to start mitigating, you know, required or not,” said Wilson Bailey, the district’s director of facilities, noting they did not “pull (the number) out of a hat” and had relied on existing regulations.
Some districts that prioritized additional lead testing and mitigated any water source with detectable lead ended up spending millions of dollars on testing and repairs. Other districts said they struggled to balance the costs of lead mitigation with the basic maintenance demands of their aging school buildings.
Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and researcher at Boston College who has spent more than 40 years studying lead exposure in children, said that over time health officials have come to understand that levels of lead exposure previously thought to be safe are not.
“We know that even the lowest amount of lead is going to harm children,” Landrigan said.
The cost of plumbing repairs or other solutions always comes up when school boards discover that lead is contaminating children’s drinking water, Landrigan said. But he warned that inaction also has a cost.
“If you don’t solve the problem, children are going to be exposed this year and next year and next year and in 2030 and in 2040 and so on,” Landrigan said. “Those children are going to be damaged, and those damaged children are not going to be as economically productive as undamaged children — their future is going to be blighted.”
‘It’s just total chaos’
When Illinois legislators passed the water testing law, they joined a wave of government officials alarmed by the potential dangers lurking in the pipes of the nation’s aging school buildings. But there was little consensus on what levels of lead were worth spending time and resources to mitigate in order to protect the country’s children.
In Illinois, the 2017 law directed schools to notify parents of results above 5 parts per billion but did not set a level where mitigation was required. This left school administrators to navigate a dizzying labyrinth of guidance that shifted as time went by.
When the law was passed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was still promoting a 2006 testing guide that “strongly” recommended schools keep fixtures at or below 20 parts per billion of lead.
That EPA report also described the lower 15 parts per billion “action level” that public water systems are held to under the federal Lead and Copper Rule. If a certain percentage of users’ taps test above that threshold, the water provider may need to make changes to its treatment process. The Illinois Department of Public Health included this information in the resources it provided schools on lead in water.
When the federal EPA updated its testing tool kit for schools in October 2018, any reference to the number at which schools should take action to remediate water sources was notably absent. The EPA’s health-based goal for drinking water is zero lead contamination, though the action level for water utilities remains at 15 parts per billion. In 2021, the EPA added a new “trigger level” for lead in drinking water of 10 parts per billion, with various consequences for water suppliers depending on the size of their water system.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended since 2016 that schools and day cares ensure that water lead levels don’t exceed 1 part per billion at drinking fountains, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all sources of lead exposure be eliminated or controlled because the metal is not safe for consumption at any level.
Because of the competing guidance, at least some districts struggled with determining what steps to take following testing. In Winnebago CUSD 323, west of Rockford, district Superintendent John Schwuchow described lead testing and mitigation as a “learning process,” according to notes from a 2017 board meeting where he also explained how the available guidelines differed. The district worked to get water lead levels below 5 parts per billion, records from a later meeting show.
Further complicating the picture was the shifting advice from the Illinois Department of Public Health on what was supposed to happen following the lead tests. In letters to some districts and in materials posted on its website, the health department told school officials that mitigation was required if they found any amount of lead in a water source. The department told other district officials that remediation was merely a recommendation, according to documents obtained through public records requests and those shared by districts.
In 2017, for example, the department sent letters approving testing submissions for west suburban Addison School District 4 and Central City School District 133 in southern Illinois. Department officials informed the districts that although the law doesn’t require mitigation, the department “is requiring the mitigation strategies … be followed for all plumbing fixtures identified with any level of lead.” Action was supposed to continue until testing showed no lead detected in each school’s water sources, according to the letters, which both contain the same language.
Months later, in January 2018, the health department wrote to St. Charles School District 303 in the west suburbs that the department “recommends” that schools develop mitigation plans for fixtures with detectable water lead levels. In a frequently asked questions sheet produced by the Illinois Department of Public Health and sent to at least one district in July of the same year, the department again stated that officials were “required” to mitigate any fixture with detectable lead.
The department acknowledged in a statement to the Tribune that conflicting guidance and communication had been shared with schools and “statements that mitigation was required were not accurate.” The report on mitigation strategies has been removed from the agency’s website, and the department’s current guidance recommends that schools take mitigation steps when any detectable level of lead is identified and then conduct more tests to confirm those measures were effective.
At least 19 states, including Illinois, have rules and laws that require schools to test their water for lead. But the thresholds for what amount of lead requires action and whether mitigation is required at all vary widely.
In 15 states and the District of Columbia, mandatory school water testing provisions specify what lead levels should prompt schools to take mitigation measures. Those levels range from 15 parts per billion in states including California, Indiana, New Jersey and Oregon to a 4 parts per billion action level in Vermont. Among states with mandatory testing laws, the most common threshold requiring mitigation was 5 parts per billion of lead.
In recent years some states have amended laws and regulations to lower the mitigation thresholds. New York and New Hampshire each lowered their action threshold from 15 parts per billion to 5 parts per billion, while Maryland went from 20 parts per billion to 5.
Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer and professor at Virginia Tech who has worked with cities and schools in places including Washington, D.C., and Flint, Michigan, to reduce lead levels in water, likened the lack of a national standard for lead in water to the “wild west.”
“It’s just total chaos to have this voluntary system with shifting goals,” Edwards said. “There’s so much angst and money spent on this nationally; every school system has to reinvent the wheel.”
The mitigation maze
Despite the urging from the Illinois Department of Public Health to work toward reducing any detectable lead in school drinking water, many districts reported addressing only fixtures with much higher lead levels.
In downstate Waterloo, near St. Louis, testing in December 2017 found 5 parts per billion or more of lead at 17 fixtures, most of them sinks, at three elementary school buildings in Waterloo CUSD 5.
Superintendent Brian Charron told the Tribune last year that the district chose to address any fixture with 20 parts per billion of lead or above. The district replaced some fixtures and retested, he said; in all, five fixtures were replaced.
Charron said that after hearing from the Tribune the district decided to retest the five replaced fixtures. All showed lead levels below 5 parts per billion, according to results the district provided.
Among the districts that told the Tribune they chose to address fixtures where water tested above 15 parts per billion were Waukegan Community School District 60, Streator Elementary School District 44, Lake Villa School District 41 and Kaneland Community Unit School District 302.
Many other districts reported taking remediation steps until all water lead levels were much lower. A survey response from Blue Ridge CUSD 18, near Champaign, stated that the district mitigated until all results were below 2 parts per billion. At District 126 in south suburban Alsip and Oak Lawn, the superintendent said in a survey response that the district fully renovated each of the buildings to “meet modern plumbing codes,” including replacing all galvanized pipes with copper ones and installing filters on all drinking fountains.
In response to the Tribune’s survey, 61 school districts said they addressed fixtures that had any detectable amount of lead. A larger number, 132 school districts, reported mitigating any lead levels above 5 parts per billion, the parent notification level set by elected officials. Some districts said that after personnel changes they could not verify what mitigation measures were taken.
Kevin Barto, director of buildings and grounds for Downers Grove Grade School District 58 in the west suburbs, said the state guidance to mitigate lead at any detectable level put a lot of pressure on schools and meeting the most stringent recommendations was a “tough task.”
The district continues to test periodically for water lead issues and addresses any fixture that shows a water level above 2 parts per billion of lead, Barto said.
Though a building’s internal plumbing can add lead to water, he noted that water systems are held to a different lead standard — up to 15 parts per billion.
“Schools … could be bringing in water at 12 or 14 parts per billion and then we’re expected to get under 5 parts per billion, or with subsequent testing to get to non-detectable or less than 2,” Barto said.
Despite the varied guidance, dozens of districts told the Tribune they immediately took steps to shut down problematic fixtures or reduce lead levels in the water.
Common strategies included replacing fountains and faucets with newer low-lead versions, installing filters that sift out lead, posting signs stating that the water at certain taps is not for drinking, replacing older pipes in the walls with newer low-lead versions, shutting down tainted fixtures and developing plans to flush out water that had been sitting in pipes for long periods of time.
Legislators did not allocate any funding for testing or mitigation, and several districts told the Tribune that the costs to mitigate water fixtures and piping were substantial.
The bill’s sponsor, former Illinois state Sen. Heather Steans, said in an interview last year that the original goal was for funding to be included in a future infrastructure bill, but that did not happen.
In a response to the Tribune’s survey, a top official at Bloomington Public Schools District 87 in central Illinois said that the district used federal funds appropriated to aid districts during the COVID-19 pandemic to do some mitigation, including installing lead-filtering water bottle fillers. The district targeted fixtures with any detectable lead.
At west suburban Geneva School District 304, director of facilities operations Scott Ney said in an interview that testing, mitigation and retesting created a “substantial cost.” The initial tests identified 38 fixtures in the district with lead levels above 5 parts per billion.
“We went around and did all the testing that was required,” Ney said. “Any elevated levels we shut down with ‘do not use’ signs and tried to figure out what was wrong at those locations or fixtures. We installed fixtures; we replaced lines; we replaced drinking fountains altogether.” Filters were also added, he said.
The Chicago Public Schools, which began to test its water before the state law took effect, said it has spent roughly $3.86 million to date just on its massive, ongoing testing program. Officials said the district’s policy is to address fixtures that register at or above 5 parts per billion of lead but did not provide information about remediation costs.
Winnetka District 36 officials said they took immediate steps to prevent students from drinking tainted water by shutting off fixtures and labeling sinks as “hand wash only” until more permanent measures could be taken. In 2019 they asked voters to approve $90 million for major repairs across the district, including $5.8 million to address old pipes that were likely leaching lead into their schools’ water supply. Voters rejected the referendum, but Goldstein, the district’s chief financial officer, said the district went forward with the lead mitigation anyway.
“In order to remedy it permanently, we felt like it was necessary to move forward with that piece,” Goldstein said.
In Kankakee, south of Chicago, elevated lead levels were found at fixtures throughout each of District 111′s school buildings. Financing the mitigation was difficult because the district can struggle to keep up with basic building maintenance, said Superintendent Genevra Walters.
“Of course we don’t want our children to be impacted by lead poisoning,” Walters said. “At the same time, many of our buildings, particularly in high minority and high poverty areas … we don’t necessarily have the funding to match the things that need to happen in terms of renovating.”
Despite submitting results showing some of the highest lead contamination levels in Illinois schools, Walters said the district received little followup from the state.
An unrelated construction grant to renovate the district’s high school loosened up some maintenance funding to add lead filters and replace old supply lines, sinks and drinking fountains where results exceeded the parent notification threshold of 5 parts per billion, she said.
The district conducted additional testing in 2018 with the goal of lowering lead levels at drinking fixtures even further, to below 2 parts per billion, according to Bill Draper, the district’s maintenance director.
The rural Serena school district, southwest of Aurora, is subject to annual lead testing because it uses water from private wells.
During testing completed in 2017, one district school identified 16 fixtures with water lead levels above 5 parts per billion. Superintendent Lisa Gifford said the district paid to install a phosphate feed at the school in the 2021-2022 school year, which further treats the water and helps protect old pipes from corrosion.
Gifford said the permanent fix, replacing all the old piping, would be a “huge undertaking” and has not been seriously considered by the school board.
Gifford is critical of the guidance the state has provided around water testing. The health department tells you “that you’re harming students,” Gifford said, but “there’s no support in any other way.” Gifford said she would appreciate “communication about what the levels mean, and what is harmful versus what is not, rather than just this blanket statement.”
The Illinois Department of Public Health said in a statement that “more could have been done to provide consistent outreach and communication” in educating schools as they made decisions about mitigation steps. The agency said it plans to survey schools to learn more about what steps were taken in response to the testing results.
The department did provide schools with information about general mitigation methods that could be implemented, including installing devices that automatically flush water at regular intervals, permanently capping fixtures, and replacing fixtures, solder or pipes that contain lead. The mitigation strategies IDPH shared on its website for schools also included the option to create a way for parents, faculty members and students to participate in regularly flushing taps by hand, such as by creating a “student water patrol.”
Some experts who study lead leaching note that manual flushing is not a preferred long-term solution to address these issues because it is prone to human error. In Missouri, schools are instructed that flushing alone does not qualify as remediation for a drinking water source.
Former Tribune reporters Cecilia Reyes and Kinsey Crowley contributed