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Another legacy from the years the Republicans were in power, for the Democrats to clean up.
updated 8:28 a.m. ET, Fri., Sept . 25, 2009
CUTLER, Calif. - Over the last decade, the drinking water at thousands of schools across the country has been found to contain unsafe levels of lead, pesticides and dozens of other toxins.
An Associated Press investigation found that contaminants have surfaced at public and private schools in all 50 states — in small towns and inner cities alike.
But the problem has gone largely unmonitored by the federal government, even as the number of water safety violations has multiplied.
"It's an outrage," said Marc Edwards, an engineer at Virginia Tech University who has been honored for his work on water quality. "If a landlord doesn't tell a tenant about lead paint in an apartment, he can go to jail. But we have no system to make people follow the rules to keep school children safe?"
The contamination is most apparent at schools with wells, which represent 8 to 11 percent of the nation's schools. Roughly one of every five schools with its own water supply violated the Safe Drinking Water Act in the past decade, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency analyzed by the AP.
In California's farm belt, wells at some schools are so tainted with pesticides that students have taken to stuffing their backpacks with bottled water for fear of getting sick from the drinking fountain.
Experts and children's advocates complain that responsibility for drinking water is spread among too many local, state and federal agencies, and that risks are going unreported. Finding a solution, they say, would require a costly new national strategy for monitoring water in schools.
Schools with unsafe water represent only a small percentage of the nation's 132,500 schools. And the EPA says the number of violations spiked over the last decade largely because the government has gradually adopted stricter standards for contaminants such as arsenic and some disinfectants.
Many of the same toxins could also be found in water at homes, offices and businesses. But the contaminants are especially dangerous to children, who drink more water per pound than adults and are more vulnerable to the effects of many hazardous substances.
"There's a different risk for kids," said Cynthia Dougherty, head of the EPA's Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water.
Still, the EPA does not have the authority to require testing for all schools and can only provide guidance on environmental practices.
In recent years, students at a Minnesota elementary school fell ill after drinking tainted water. A young girl in Seattle got sick, too.
The problem goes beyond schools that use wells. Schools that draw water from public utilities showed contamination, too, especially older buildings where lead can concentrate at higher levels than in most homes.
In schools with lead-soldered pipes, the metal sometimes flakes off into drinking water. Lead levels can also build up as water sits stagnant over weekends and holidays.
Schools that get water from local utilities are not required to test for toxins because the EPA already regulates water providers. That means there is no way to ensure detection of contaminants caused by schools' own plumbing.
But voluntary tests in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Seattle and Los Angeles have found dangerous levels of lead in recent years. And experts warn the real risk to schoolchildren is going unreported.
"I really suspect the level of exposure to lead and other metals at schools is underestimated," said Michael Schock, a corrosion expert with the EPA in Cincinnati. "You just don't know what is going on in the places you don't sample."