UW News

December 6, 2004

A review of the health implications of lead in Seattle School District drinking water

Recent testing throughout the Seattle Public School District revealed that many schools have at least one drinking fountain with lead levels that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency guideline for lead in school drinking water. In a new report, the Northwest Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (NW PEHSU), based at the University of Washington School of Medicine, says that it is extremely unlikely that any child will have a blood lead level that would require follow-up medical testing and care. The report also recommends that the school district set up an independent task force to formulate a district policy for dealing with lead in drinking water.

Dr. Catherine Karr, director of the NW PEHSU, says the unit became concerned when stories began appearing in Seattle media about lead levels in school water fountains.

“We recognized that there was a lack of available information about how these lead levels might affect children’s health,” Karr said. “We did this study because, as a regional resource for expertise on children’s environmental health, we felt a responsibility to have the answers to questions concerned parents, educators and others may have about the possible effects of these lead levels in the school water supply.”

The report says that some children are at higher risk than others to have high blood lead levels, and may require both blood tests and medical care if they are also drinking water from drinking fountains with comparatively high lead levels:

  • Children under 6 years of age who drink from school water that consistently exceeds a lead level of 200 to 300 parts per billion.
  • Children under 6 years old who have medical conditions, such as nutritional deficiencies like anemia, calcium or vitamin D deficiencies that may increase their absorption of lead.
  • Children who have pre-existing neurological problems like autism, seizure disorders or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may be more vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead. Karr adds, “There is currently no clear evidence to support or refute this, however.”
  • Children who have pre-existing blood lead levels that are higher than expected due to other significant lead exposures, from living with family members who work with lead on the job in manufacturing or who participate in hobbies that result in lead exposure, such as working with stained glass or using lead-based glazes on pottery.

Based on its review, NW PEHSU doesn’t recommend routine blood lead screening for all Seattle school children. However, if individual families have special concerns about children’s lead exposure, they can request testing from a health care provider or with the help of NW PEHSU.

The unit strongly supports efforts to keep children’s lead exposure as low as possible, and endorses the School District’s adoption of EPA guidelines calling for less than 20 parts per billion. The NW PEHSU recommends that the district form an independent task force charged with formulating a school lead and water policy, and urges that members of the task force should represent parents, the school board, local public health officials, district administrators and the Parent-Teacher-Student Association.

The NW PEHSU is based in the UW Occupational and Environmental Health Program.