In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
As director of the Kentucky Division of Water, Peter Goodmann oversees water quality programs, including the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act as well as others that monitor dam safety, watersheds, floodplains and agricultural water quality. He recently discussed lead pipes and how they can affect the safety of water in public schools.
Q: Do we know how many public school buildings in Kentucky have lead pipes?
A. We don’t. We can speculate based on the year schools were built. The older the schools, the more likely they are to have lead service lines and other lead piping, fixtures or solder in the plumbing.
Q. Can we say that schools built after a certain date are less likely to have lead pipes or service lines?
A. From the mid-1980s on they should be OK. That’s quite a few schools, though, that would still be in operation with lead pipes.
Q. Is removing lead pipes the answer?
A. Even if we made enormous efforts to move lead infrastructure out of the drinking water system, which would cost tens of billions of dollars nationwide for decades and decades, there will still be lead in the infrastructure. It is important that we manage corrosiveness. The failure in Flint, Mich., really isn’t that there was lead in service lines; it was a systematic failure of that public water system in not having corrosion control. Flint did not have lead problems prior to that because they had taken corrosion control measures. Corrosion control is the major issue for managing lead and copper in public water systems.
Q. Is that something that school systems have any control over or impact on?
A. Only one school in the state, a school in Carlisle County that has its own well, has its own public water system. They had some lead and copper issues and we worked with them on those. The lead issues are under control; they are still struggling with copper and that is about corrosion control. We continue to work with them.
Q. Who is responsible for corrosion control?
A. Corrosion control systems are handled by the public water systems that serve the schools. Corrosion control is managed at the water treatment plant, basically by adding orthophosphates, which coat the pipes on the inside and form a thin layer of calcium phosphate. The layer keeps any of the lead from leaching into the water from the pipes. In Flint, as a cost-saving measure, they did not spend the money on the chemicals to do the corrosion control. The water was so corrosive that it stripped out the phosphate coatings on the inside of those pipes and it began very rapidly to corrode. And it doesn’t take much corrosion to leach lead out of a solder joint or lead service line. You don’t need that much exposed to get several parts of lead per billion or hundreds of parts per billion in the drinking water. A very important part of managing the water chemistry in a public water system is managing how corrosive the water is and using controls on that.
Q. So having lead pipes in schools isn’t necessarily going to be a problem and schools don’t need to replace them?
A. I would always say it is better to not have lead than to have lead, but you have to make an assessment because there is risk in replacing lead piping, too. You are going to have to cut that pipe and when you do, you liberate lead and you will have some sustained exposure to lead unless you completely eliminate it. One of the options is removing lead pipes, but that might not be the only option. Another option might be ensuring the corrosion control plan for the public water system is working adequately.
Q. Who should schools call for advice about lead issues tied to drinking water?
A. I would refer them to the local public water system. If schools aren’t having lead issues but are concerned that there is lead in the water in the school, I would encourage them to talk to their public water system about getting that water sampled and making a risk assessment with their local public water system.
Q. Are schools getting in touch with their local water companies?
A. I don’t really know. That would be a good question for the schools. I am sure there is a heightened awareness. I don’t know how you could not be more aware of it, given the Flint and Sebring, Ohio, incidents.
Q. Does the Division of Water receive a lot of reports of lead issues in drinking water at public schools?
A. We have a lot of schools out there and we are not really seeing lead issues in Kentucky. We have never seen lead poisoning in Kentucky from a drinking water source. That is a really good thing.
Q. You are saying that we have never had a student who has suffered lead poisoning from drinking water in a school?
A. I am saying the Department of Public Health told me last week that yes, we have had lead poisoning issues for children in the state. But the department said they have never had a lead poisoning incident in Kentucky that they could attribute to water.
Most of the causes were kids eating paint chips or inhaling lead vapors, either through burning old paint off walls or hobbies such as making bullets and fishing sinkers or being around dust from hobbies like those.
Q. Some public schools are starting to monitor their water quality. Tell me about how the Jefferson County schools are working with their local water system.
A. They have a plan where they rotate to the different schools in different parts of the city and county to do sampling. Obviously schools that are older are higher on their list, but they are going to cover them all. Other communities are starting to do that, too.
Q. Is testing for lead in drinking water complicated?
A. It is a challenge when you have a bigger building, because you have a number of receptors and your sampling technique relies on letting the water rest. Because there is generally no one at schools from around 6 or 7 p.m. until 6 the next morning, that is the time to sample – when that water has been in the system for at least six hours. It is expensive to do lead sampling but it is important to have an idea of what the quality of water is in the schools. Most public water systems are very willing to work with the schools to ensure that the water is safe.
Q. What is the state of public water systems in Kentucky?
A. We’ve had only four public water systems over the last nine years that were out of compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule (a 1991 EPA regulation to control lead and copper in drinking water) and they have all returned to compliance through adjusting the system. We’ve never had any terrible problem here, but it is never bad to be proactive and work with your local public water system to check your water.
Q. Is water sampling something that a school can do on its own?
A. There are kits you can buy, but I’m not sure how reliable they are. Lab services can be expensive. But it is not a bad science project for kids. One student, a sixth-grader at my son’s school, is sampling the water at his home, his school and his church for lead, copper and some other things. I am pretty sure public water systems would be willing to work with schools if they are interested in monitoring to do it the right way. It is an opportunity to educate kids about lead and about public water systems and safe drinking water.
Q. Are there changes to federal requirements for monitoring water quality on the horizon?
A. The EPA has indicated it will make modifications to the Lead and Copper Rule in 2017. The reason that there is not a lot of data for drinking water in schools is because of the way the Lead and Copper Rule is written. The rule has some significant shortcomings, and one of them is that schools are not included in the Tier 1 sampling sites (sampling sites with the highest-risk single family structures).
Q. What is being done at the state level?
A. In Kentucky, we have a lead and drinking water work group with some educational and consulting firms and public water systems working on various issues, including looking at the status of the regulations. I would speculate there is going to be some pressure to include schools as Tier I sites.
Q. Is there a good reason to press for that change?
A. The concern is that kids are the most susceptible to lead contamination in drinking water. They spend significant time at school and are presumably consuming water there, so we want to make sure the drinking water is safe. Since schools haven’t historically been a part of the regulatory monitoring framework, I think there is going to be pressure for that to happen.
Q. Where does most of our drinking water come from?
A. Public water systems serve more than 95 percent of the populations in Kentucky, which is remarkably high. We have a relatively small number of private wells and other sources, so most of the state is served by public water. About 60 to 65 percent of our public water systems rely on surface water (lakes, etc.) and about 35 to 40 percent rely on groundwater (aquifers).