As the local community watches UNC grapple with detectable lead levels in the drinking water of over 125 buildings, some questions have been raised about the safety of other educational institutions.
Data from Clean Water for Carolina Kids shows that some preschools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area are also seeing perceptible levels — although they are generally lower than the University.
Licensed childcare centers are required by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to test all fixtures used for drinking and cooking purposes for lead.
Tests must occur every three years, and sources that register concentrations of lead with 10 parts per billion (ppb) or above cannot be used for consumption.
Last year, North Carolina expanded testing to public schools. However, requirements do not exist for most of North Carolina’s other citizens.
“In terms of colleges and universities, along with anybody else that lives in a house, there's still no requirements to test for lead at the taps, at drinking and cooking points nationally, and there’s still no enforceable health-based standards,” Jennifer Redmon, the director of environmental health and water quality at RTI International — which leads the Clean Water for Carolina Kids program — said.
Preschools must submit water samples to a certified laboratory capable of analyzing for lead at very small levels, and must notify the NCDHHS with all findings.
“The process is relatively simple using testing kits from Clean Water for Carolina Kids,” Jeanne Wakefield, the executive director at Chapel Hill Cooperative Preschool, said in an email.
According to Wakefield, Chapel Hill Cooperative Preschool tested its water in 2021 and is due to test again in 2024. She added that nothing concerning was found, and that the preschool follows all required testing protocols.
Out of all reporting preschools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, only three were found to have faucets with lead levels exceeding 1 ppb — but they were all less than 2 ppb.
Dangers of lead exposure
Exposure to lead in drinking water can have serious health effects. Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that children might develop behavioral and learning problems, experience slowed growth or suffer decreased hearing and IQs.
According to Redmon, there is no safe level of lead exposure.
“For a lot of things, we think about, 'Oh, a little bit of this isn't going to hurt me,'" she said. “But that's not what the research suggests is the case for lead exposure — any lead exposure is adverse to anybody.”
The contaminant typically enters drinking water when lead-containing plumbing materials corrode, which occurs more frequently in buildings built before 1986, according to the EPA.
“As the plumbing goes from the community system that we maintain, through the meter, and then to the home plumbing, the rest of that home plumbing is the responsibility of the homeowner and can still contain some components that are made of some level of lead,” Blake Hodge, the communications director at the Orange Water and Sewage Authority, said.
He added that OWASA currently has no known lines with lead contamination in the community service system it manages. The problem exists when water from the OWASA-managed system is drawn to private buildings.
However, newer buildings — even those without lead service lines — are not necessarily free from danger. Redmon said a variety of factors, including water chemistry and frequency of use, can impact lead concentrations in water, and that contamination can vary from tap to tap.
“Even newer buildings in many towns can connect with water lines that were set before that building went into place,” she said.
According to Clean Water for Carolina Kids, water sources with 1 ppb of lead or more can have their effects limited or avoided at little cost by switching to a different tap when cooking and drinking, or by flushing water to prevent the build-up of contamination in pipes.
Efforts can also be taken to directly address lead contamination as water exits the tap.
“Our goal is to stop lead exposure at the tap today, and ways that we can do that are: one, suggesting that you replace the water fixture with newer ones that have less allowable lead and, two, installing and maintaining a filter certified to remove lead,” Redmon said.
Other methods she suggested included adhering to clean water habits like only using cold water when cooking and avoiding taps not meant for consumption.
“I think that it's really important for everybody to realize that while it can seem scary to hear things like, ‘There’s no safe lead exposure,’ you can also stop that immediately today,” Redmon said.
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