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Environment & Science

Montana Rule Change Requires Schools To Test For Lead

A glass being filled with water from a faucet.
Tompkins County, NY
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Tompkins County, NY
Montana schools will be required to test drinking fountains and food preperation sinks.

Montana has joined two dozen states and the District of Columbia in requiring all schools to test drinking water for lead.

The rule change, proposed in 2018, took effect Jan. 7.

It requires schools to test drinking fountains and sinks used for food preparation for lead every three years, beginning at the end of 2021. If lead is found between 5 parts per billion and 15 parts per billion, the school must flush out the water fixture on a regular basis until it addresses the problem. That means running a faucet or drinking fountain before kids show up in the morning.

If lead is found over 15 parts per billion, the school must shut off that water fixture immediately.

In both cases, the state requires some form of remediation, like shutting off or replacing the drinking fountain or fixture.

Tim Davis with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality says lead is a neurotoxin which children are especially vulnerable to.

“As a state, we have not sampled our schools except on a limited subset of schools that are their own public supplies, and so we need to know if there are high sources of lead and we need to be able to remediate those so kids are safe,” Davis said. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead exposure can cause children permanent nerve and brain damage, learning difficulties and developmental challenges.

Environment Montana, a Missoula-based branch of a national environmental advocacy group, surveyed four different Montana school districts in 2018. It found that about three quarters of those schools tested at or above 1 parts per billion of lead.

Environment Montana Executive Director Skye Borden says the only safe amount of lead is no lead at all, but calls the changes a good compromise.

“This rule doesn’t completely get the lead out of drinking water at school. What it does do is help us address the worst cases of lead pollution and it also gives parents the information they need to help kids figure out what’s in the drinking water at their kids’ school,” Borden said. 

The Montana Office of Public Instruction and state teacher’s union opposed the rule last year for financial reasons and requested a comment extension, which the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services granted.

Tim Davis with DEQ says the first round of test samples will be funded through the Environmental Protection Agency and state funds, with additional funding possible.

The new lead rule is part of a broader set of school and health safety rules through the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services. Davis says it was last updated in the 1980s.