Toxins are everywhere. In Portland, the discovery and subsequent cover-up of high levels of lead in the drinking water of public schools led to Portland Superintendent Carole Smith’s resignation July 18.
Here in Lane County, school districts are in the midst of testing drinking fountains and faucets for elevated levels of lead.
But for daycare centers and buildings where young children gather to learn, testing water for lead isn’t a sure thing.
School districts in Oregon aren’t mandated to test for lead in drinking water, but many have chosen to pay for testing out of their general funds, including Eugene 4J, Springfield, Bethel, Creswell and North Douglas school districts. The districts have committed to find and repair any locations where lead is leaching into the water.
In April, the state of Massachusetts set aside $2 million to test public school drinking water across the state, according to The Boston Globe. No such money has been set aside in Oregon as of yet.
Daycare centers aren’t mandated to test, and any testing would come out of their own pockets. On June 8, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and the Oregon Department of Education released recommendations “to help school districts and childcare centers reduce lead in drinking water.” The recommendations say that all childcare programs should test their drinking water for lead this summer and fix all detected problems.
Young children and babies are more vulnerable to the health effects of lead than older children or adults, and even small amounts of exposure can cause learning disabilities, impaired hearing and other symptoms, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Most childcare centers are private, and we have a lot of registered home facilities as well, so we can’t mandate them to test their water for lead,” says Karol Collymore, a spokesperson for the Oregon Early Learning Division. “We are arming our childcare licensers with information on how they can do that. We know that our caregivers want their kids to be safe, and we know just because we’re not allowed to mandate it doesn’t mean they don’t want to do it.”
Judy Newman, co-director of Early Childhood CARES, says as Preschool Promise — a new publicly funded preschool program — is implemented in Lane County, new classrooms will be tested for lead before opening in the fall.
Charleen Strauch, operations director for Head Start of Lane County, says that because Head Start is a federal program, they follow strict mandates that require testing each facility to ensure children are safe. Head Start drinking water was tested five months ago, Strauch says.
In some Head Start locations, fountains and sinks are disabled, and children drink from water coolers. Strauch says she hopes to install new, hands-free water bottle stations at Head Start locations by September.
For privately owned daycare centers, lead testing is up to the discretion of the owners. Last month, the Early Learning Division sent a flier to local childcare centers with tips on how to deal with lead in drinking water, recommending that all early learning environments should test for lead and use an OHA-accredited drinking water laboratory. Any taps with water showing lead levels of more than 15 parts per billion should be shut off, the flier says.
Collymore with the Early Learning Division says parents should talk to their childcare providers to find out if they are testing for lead. “They can express their concern and support them as they try to navigate this lead testing situation,” she says, adding that the Early Learning Division is a resource for guidance.
Visit the Oregon Health Authority website for more information.