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Bill requiring Missouri schools to cut lead in drinking water heading to governor

Steve Johnson
Nationally, ingestion of lead through drinking water is estimated to account for about 20% of a child’s lead exposure.

Lawmakers in both parties overwhelmingly supported requiring Missouri schools to test and filter children’s drinking water.

Legislation on its way to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk could drastically cut down on the amount of lead allowed in school drinking water in an effort to protect children from the toxic metal.

Across the U.S., millions of homes and schools are still served by decades-old lead water lines, which can leach the dangerous neurotoxin into drinking water under the right conditions.

The state currently doesn’t require schools to test their water, and only a few have taken advantage of grants to do so voluntarily. But on Thursday, the Missouri House approved legislation that would require administrators to test and take action under standards more protective than federal regulations.

The Senate approved the bill, which contains several other education provisions, on Tuesday. It now heads to the governor for his signature or veto.

“It would be hard to find somebody who wants children to drink lead. We had strong champions on both sides of the aisle."
Jeanette Mott Oxford, Metropolitan Congregations United and Missouri Filter First Coalition

Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin, and scientists agree there is no safe level of lead in humans’ blood. Elevated blood lead levels can cause lost IQ points, behavioral problems and, in high doses, death. Young children are especially vulnerable to the toxin because their bodies absorb more of it. Later in life, it can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.

One study found that Missouri, home to the historic Lead Belt, suffers from some of the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning, though comparative data is hard to come by.

Nationally, ingestion of lead through drinking water is estimated to account for about 20% of a child’s lead exposure. Proponents of the bill argue that testing and filtering school drinking water will help because children spend so much time in the classroom.

Lead-based paint was banned for residential use in 1978. It was banned in plumbing in 1986.

“Lead is not reversible. The damage it does: It is done,” said Barbara Johnson of Metropolitan Congregations United’s Environmental Task Force.

The bill, which bundles a number of various education policies, requires schools to test their drinking water and install filters if lead concentrations exceed five parts per billion. They can either install filters where the water supply enters the building or at each sink or water fountain, depending on the source of the contamination. Schools would have to remove old lead-lined coolers outlawed decades ago.

Early versions of the bill would have required action at lead concentrations above one part per billion. That’s the maximum level recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics because it is the lowest detectable level.

But lawmakers amended the language, saying sophisticated laboratory testing required to detect such low concentrations of lead is not as widely available.

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t require public water systems to take action unless more than 10% of routine samples have 15 or more parts per billion of lead.

Legislators started their annual session with several bills meant to remove lead from school drinking water. Both the House and Senate previously approved school water testing, although the votes came on two different bills.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, started amending the policy onto other bills in the hopes of improving its chance of success. A conference committee considering the other education provisions in the bill took the rare step of adding the lead policy into a bill that didn’t include it when it originally passed the House or Senate.

Most states, like Missouri, provide funds through federal grants that allow schools to test their water. But Missouri would be unique among some of its Midwestern peers in requiring schools to take action.

The state’s budget, also approved by lawmakers and awaiting Parson’s signature, includes $27 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds to help schools test for lead and install filters.

A joint investigation with the Missouri Independent and The Midwest Newsroom
A joint investigation with the Missouri Independent and The Midwest Newsroom

The Missouri Independent’s Niara Savage, an NPR Midwest Newsroom fellow, contributed to this report. 

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Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture.
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