Current testing for lead contamination does not accurately measure exposure, according to a new report. That could mean providers are facing a whole generation of patients with long-term health effects.
An analysis of lead levels in school water fountains across 16 states showed many schools had levels that exceeded the federal threshold of 15 parts per billion.
Water from school drinking fountains has increasingly been tested for lead since the contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., sparked municipalities across the country to test their own water supplies.
But even as more schools test their water, the states analyzed in the report released Wednesday did not mandate schools to limit exposure. Most tests only require action if a school's water-lead content exceeds federal regulations. But most public health experts believe there is no safe level of lead exposure when it comes to children, who can absorb as much as 90% more lead into their bodies than adults.
People with prolonged exposure to lead are at higher risk for chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and reduced fertility, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those conditions accounted for 86% of all healthcare spending in 2010.
A 2011 study in Health Affairs estimated lead exposure resulted in nearly $6 million in medical costs plus an additional $51 billion due to reduced cognitive potential.
Lead exposure has also been linked to higher rates of depression, attention deficit disorder and antisocial behavior, traits found among many residents within low-income communities where exposure to old buildings with lead-based paint is high.
A number of local government have begun taking steps to address the problem. The report released Wednesday recommends that municipalities remove lead service lines and lead-bearing plumbing and fixtures that tend to corrode, and install filters that remove lead on taps and water fountains.
The District of Columbia is considering an ordinance that would test all drinking water sources in public schools and daycare centers and would shut off any water source where lead content exceeded 1 part per billion, the standard recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.