Channel 9 explores lead-testing policies in public schools

CHARLOTTE — North Carolina changed its law earlier this year to try to make school drinking water safer for kids by requiring public schools to test for lead and report the results.

The sign-up period is more than halfway through and 9 Investigates found out that not one school district in our area has signed up for the program.

Channel 9′s Madison Carter teamed up with ABC News stations around the country to investigate what schools are doing to keep our kids safe from the harmful effects of lead.

She explains in this report how the Carolinas measure up.

At least six counties in our area are considered “top priority” for lead testing based on North Carolina’s criteria. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Iredell-Statesville Schools have the most in that top tier.

The state will provide testing kits and pay for the fixes if high levels of lead are found. The EPA’s recommended threshold for lead in drinking water is 15 µg/L.

However, there is a limited amount of money, so the sooner schools enroll and start testing, the more of their costs will be covered.

Brian Kasher said he and his wife moved to Charlotte so their kids could go to great schools. He also spent years working for the school district overseeing its Department of Environmental Health and Safety.

“Lead is even more of a diabolical problem in women of childbearing age because lead displaces the calcium in our bodies,” Kasher said.

Kasher became so passionate about it that he left and ran for the CMS School Board on the issue of water safety saying schools should be testing for lead and informing parents whenever it’s found.

“Once it’s determined that a fixture or a water faucet is discharging lead, it should be taken out of service immediately,” he said. “But then there’s a cost.”

It’s a cost that school districts can now have covered by the state, including the installation of lead-removing filters. However, districts must sign up and begin testing by May 1.

Dennis LaCaria now runs the Department of Environmental Health for CMS.

“It’s pretty onerous when we got 23 million square feet of buildings and almost 6,000 acres of real estate,” LaCaria said.

The district is working to inventory nearly 200 schools with thousands of water taps, plus all the portable classrooms, he said.

“The last real intensive round of lead testing in water that we did was in 2021,” LaCaria said.

A new program called Clean Water for Kids will help all public and charter schools in the state test and report results to an online platform, which will give districts a baseline and parents transparency.

Nancy Love is a professor of environmental engineering.

“Kids spend more time in school buildings than any other place, second only to their home,” Love said.

She said not everyone understands the source of lead in water or how to address it.

“The approach that many states have taken with lead is to try to monitor their way out of it,” she said. “You can’t ‘monitor your way out’ of lead.”

Kasher said that even at low levels, lead can have serious health risks over time.

“Lead can absolutely come from a teacher who happily filled her water carton three times a day at the beautiful, pristine looking, brand new looking water fountain that was dispensing poison,” Kasher said.

Shortly before North Carolina changed its law, Environment America, a research and policy center, gave the state a “C-minus” rating for its test-and-fix policies.

South Carolina got an “F” rating because it has no laws or requirements for schools to address lead in drinking water.

However, Rock Hill and Chesterfield County public schools told Channel 9 they have water filtration systems to mitigate the lead impact on students.

Carter asked seven school districts in our area, including Cabarrus, Union, CMS, Chesterfield, Chester, Lancaster, and Rock Hill, if they would let our investigative team test their water. Most declined or failed to respond.

None would let us observe any testing that they were already doing.

CMS was the only local district willing to tell Channel 9 about its plans.

Madison Carter

Madison Carter, wsoctv.com

Madison is an investigative reporter and anchor for Channel 9.

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