Why is lead a problem and how can I be exposed to lead?
Children six years old and younger are most susceptible to the effects of lead. Their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults, and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Even at very low levels of exposure to lead, children may experience effects including lower IQ levels, reduced attention span, hyperactivity, poor classroom performance, or other harmful physical and behavioral effects.
There are many sources of lead exposure, including drinking water. Learn more about the health effects of lead, common sources, and how to prevent exposure.
What is DOH doing to test for lead in drinking water in schools?
Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill (E2SHB) 1139 (PDF) was passed through the Legislature and signed by the governor in 2021 to address concerns about lead in drinking water and reduce children's overall exposure to lead in the environment. In passing the bill, the Legislature follows the advice of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that there is no known safe level of blood lead in children. Even low levels of lead exposure can cause permanent cognitive, academic, and behavioral difficulties in children.
In the previous round of voluntary sampling and testing that began in January 2018, we contacted district facilities managers to schedule sampling dates. Our staff visited schools and took water samples based on EPA's 3Ts for Reducing the Lead in Drinking Water in Schools (PDF). Samples were sent to the DOH Public Health Lab for analysis, and results were distributed to the school district and maintained on our test results webpage. We provided guidance on communication and necessary remediation. Sampling began February 2018 and continued until funding that covered costs of collecting and analyzing samples was depleted.
As mandated in E2SHB 1139 (PDF), now Chapter 43.70.830 RCW (PDF) and Chapter 28A.210.410 RCW (PDF), we will continue testing for lead in school drinking water and provide technical assistance and guidance to school districts regarding lead testing and follow-up actions. We are partnering with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, schools, and local health officials to support and advise schools on planning and development of action plans that are required when lead test results show elevated levels of lead.
Which schools will DOH test?
We identified schools to include in the initial two-year plan for sampling and testing school drinking water. Before we can include a school in the sampling plan, we must contact the school to determine if they have contracted or plan to contract for sampling and testing.
We will continue to update the two-year Sampling Plan (PDF) as we learn more about each school’s testing status.
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What actions are needed after testing?
This depends on the lead results from testing. For each fixture with lead results over 15 parts per billion (ppb):
- Shut off the water to the fixture as soon as possible after receiving test results, and;
- Ensure it remains inaccessible to students and staff until a plan is in place to shut it off permanently or remediation is in place.
Per Chapter 43.70.830 RCW (PDF) and Chapter 28A.210.410 RCW (PDF), schools with lead results greater than 5 ppb must develop an action plan in consultation with DOH or their local health jurisdiction. This plan must describe mitigation measures since the lead results were received, include a schedule for remediation activities, and include a plan for post-remediation sampling and testing to confirm remediation activities have reduced lead concentrations at drinking water outlets to 5 or fewer ppb.
Refer to the Washington state-specific Technical Guidance (PDF) for testing and remediation options. Additional information for addressing sources of lead in school drinking water can be found in EPA's 3Ts for Reducing the Lead in Drinking Water in Schools (PDF).
Lead Poisoning Prevention - Health effects of lead, common sources, and how to prevent exposure.
Governor's Directive on Lead (PDF)