Amid studies showing lead-tainted water in Colorado schools, a group of Colorado lawmakers, child health professionals, and advocates is supporting legislation to provide water filtration and testing for Colorado public schools.
The proposed bill, called the Get the Lead Out of School Drinking Water Act, is intended to safeguard the health of children, who are more vulnerable than adults to the harmful effects of lead. Lead is a known neurotoxicant that can cause serious health problems and developmental damage.
“Everyone deserves safe drinking water, and that means water that’s free of lead,” said Cori Bell, an advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group, at a news conference organized today by the Colorado Filter First Coalition, which is made up of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial justice group, Plumbers Local Union #3, and NRDC. “[Filtration] is an effective, efficient and affordable way to get lead out of drinking water.”
Bell has been working with states across the country to address lead contamination in water. And although lead in school drinking water has been documented nationwide, Colorado ranks poorly compared with other states.
Dr. P. J. Parmar, a family physician for refugees in Aurora, also pointed out that lead contamination is more severe in Colorado than elsewhere in the country.
“We’re one of the worst states in the country for the number of kids who have lead in their blood,” said Parmar at the news conference.
In 2019, the state received an “F” ranking from a report by Environment America and the U.S. PIRG, due in part to a lack of required testing and poor enforcement of lead removal procedures.
The Environment America report stated that lead can cause learning and behavior impairments. Children also absorb four to five times as much lead as adults from ingesting a given lead source. According to the EPA, even low levels of lead exposure can cause cognitive deficits, lower IQ scores, and nervous system damage in children.
Colorado conducted a voluntary lead testing program on the water in schools several years ago and found that, as of 2020, over 50% of schools tested showed elevated levels of the metal, according to the NRDC website. Further testing found that 72% of Colorado children under five had measurable levels of lead in their blood.
Public health experts have said that there’s no safe level of lead exposure for children. Yet many older school buildings in Colorado and elsewhere still have lead pipes, faucets, and other fixtures. The lead leaches into the water supply during weekends, school holidays, and breaks when the taps aren’t regularly in use.
According to the Colorado People’s Alliance (COPA), a multiracial organization devoted to economic, climate, and immigrant justice, schools and homes in poorer areas – and historically Black and brown neighborhoods – are especially vulnerable to lead contamination.
Rachael Lehman, a Montbello resident and member of COPA, said her 15-year-old daughter can’t drink the water at their high school because it gives them a stomachache. Lehman makes weekly trips to Walmart to pick up five-gallon jugs of water for the household.
“It takes a little over an hour to fill the jugs because there’s such a long line,” Lehman said. “They’re very large and cumbersome. I can’t imagine anyone with limited mobility would be able to accomplish this task.”
Despite the inconveniences it may cause, many poorer Coloradans still buy bottled or filtered water from the store because they lack access to it in their own homes, and the water in their area contains lead as well as other pollutants.
If the new bill passes, all public schools and daycares in Colorado will be able to have filters installed in their drinking and cooking water taps. Water from these taps will also be tested regularly for lead contamination.
Advocates of the bill expect it will cost about $26.7 million to purchase and install the water filters plus an additional $12.7 million for ongoing maintenance and replacements. Most, if not all, of these costs could be covered by federal funding provided under the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s infrastructure bill, and the Build Back Better Act (if it passes).
Currently, the bill is co-sponsored by several Democratic state legislators, including Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora, Sen. Faith Winter of Westminster, Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango, and Rep. Emily Sirota of Denver. The sponsors stressed that now is the time to pass this bill and take advantage of federal funding to cover the up-front costs of the program.
“We want to seize upon this moment when there are federal dollars available for just this kind of work,” said Sirota. “It’s critical that we act now, this year, to ensure that our kids have safe drinking water.”