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Lead continues to stir troubled drinking waters schools from coast to coast
Newark, New Jersey, and Portland, Oregon, are now the latest cities where testing is ratcheting up and schools are shifting to bottled water. - photo by Eric Schulzke
From Baltimore and Newark to Chicago and Portland, Oregon, lead in school water is worrying parents and sparking testing initiatives. The bottled water industry isn't hurting either.

"Cost is not an issue," Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool told a gather of parents late last month. Money is an issue, of course, since CPS is essentially bankrupt, as the Chicago Tribune notes.

"We'll spend whatever it takes to remove any devices or any piping that might pose lead hazard risk. Whatever that is, however much it costs, we will do it to make sure that our water pipes are safe and that our children, your children, are safe."

The problem is not specific to schools, and it's not a problem with the water sources. Rather, the trouble stems from aging pipe systems that were built before lead pipes and lead solder on piping were banned by the EPA in 1986.

The lead issue stormed onto the national consciousness in 2015, but the trouble began in 2013 when the city of Flint, Michigan, switched its water supply from lake water to the Flint River to save money, as NPR laid out in an overview of the crisis.

The river water had higher acidity, causing it to leach aging pipes that had been more stable with the less acidic lake water.

Since that time, lead has shown up in school water in numerous major cities, and the Natural Resources Defense Council last week released a primer with an interactive map on lead problems throughout the country.

Lead is considered extremely dangerous to the developing brains of children, and the Centers for Disease Control in 2012 revised the blood lead level of concern downward for children. Previously the target level of concern had been 10 mcg/dl, but the CDC now targets 5 mcg/dl.

To put that in context, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services published a graph last fall showing tested blood levels from 2010 through 2015. The the effect of the Flint crisis is clear in this graph, which shows a general downward trend in incidence of elevated blood levels, punctuated by signficant spikes in Flint in 2014 and 2015.

Lead is known to permanently lower the IQ of young children and, as Mother Jones notes, there is some solid research suggesting that the heightened crime rates of the late 1980s and 1990s were caused by exposure of young children to air laden with lead from leaded gasoline. Lead was phased out of gasoline beginning in the 1970s and was finally banned in 1996.