Environmentalists in New Jersey released data this week that may startle parents nationwide: 55 percent of school districts in Bergen County, a wealthy and diverse area outside of New York City, have reported lead contamination in the tap water flowing from their faucets and drinking fountains. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can cause irreversible cognitive damage and behavioral problems in children.
Bergen County is not alone. Environmentalists say lead contamination in soil, drinking water and older residential buildings is widespread throughout the country. For example, in Massachusetts, nearly 50 percent of tests conducted at schools last year came up positive for lead, according to Environment America.
Still, many states do not require schools to test for lead in tap water. Wealthier states, such as New Jersey and Massachusetts, are only aware of their problems because officials are actively testing the water in schools, according to Doug O'Malley, the director of Environment New Jersey, which compiled the drinking water data from individual districts in Bergen County.
"It took a disaster like Flint to put [lead] on the front page, but everyone thinks it's somebody else's problem; a lot of states are not doing [the] testing," O'Malley told Truthout, referring to the water contamination crisis that has rocked Flint, Michigan and made national headlines in recent years.
Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics called on public officials to update lead standards, citing a growing body of evidence that children can suffer problems, such as lower IQ scores, from concentrations of lead in their blood at levels 50 percent lower than previously thought. As lead contamination crises unfolded in environmental justice communities, such as Flint and East Chicago, Indiana, activists launched campaigns demanding that public officials strengthen protections and invest in lead-free infrastructure.
However, under the leadership of the Trump administration, which has pledged to slash federal regulations at every level, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could be headed in the opposite direction.
"If anything, the Trump EPA wants to gut the standard as is, and we've heard from medical professionals that their peer review board is a joke," O'Malley said.
Soon after taking office, President Trump issued a controversial executive order requiring federal agencies to repeal two regulations for every new one issued and to ensure that regulatory costs do not increase for businesses. Under the direction of its new administrator, Trump-appointee Scott Pruitt, the EPA is now reviewing its existing regulations and holding public meetings to determine what rules can be changed or rescinded to comply with the order.
On May 1, the EPA held one of these meetings to take comments from the public on its standards and programs for preventing lead poisoning from contaminated paint, dust and soil. Contact with lead paint chips and dust found in homes and residential buildings is a common cause of childhood lead poisoning, especially in public housing and low-income neighborhoods of color.
Members of environmental groups and construction and remodeling contractors lined up to comment, with many supporting the EPA's current rules and training programs for contractors, if not calling for them to be strengthened, according to a transcript. Some members of the construction industry were wary of an expansion of the rules and requested specific changes based on their experience on the ground -- there have been problems with standardized lead-testing kits, for example -- but most agreed that protecting children is a priority.
"This rule protects businesses and property owners because you know lead has been handled correctly and prevents any unnecessary lawsuits," said Stephanie Isaacson, the owner of a renovation firm in Kansas City, Missouri, who employs 100 lead-removal consultants.
Back in New Jersey, schools have been working to replace drinking fountains and lead pipes where drinking water tested positive for lead at levels above the federal limit of 15 parts per million. Lead pipes are often replaced to protect drinking water, and this type of infrastructure work is expensive. In Flint, the state of Michigan recently agreed in a legal settlement to spend $97 million on replacing all of the city's water pipes, which have been leaching high amounts of lead for years.
Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Josh Gottheimer, both Democrats from New Jersey, have introduced separate bills in Congress that would help schools test for lead and replace outdated pipes and drinking fountains with funding from federal grant programs and other sources. However, with Democrats in the minority and Congressional Republicans focused on issues like health care, the bills have yet to make it out of committee.
O'Malley said Trump's proposal for fixing the nation's aging infrastructure does not give him much hope because it relies on incentivizing private businesses to invest in public works.
"There's not a lot of profit in replacing lead service lines," O'Malley said.
In the latest batch of data from Bergen County, many positive tests were below the federal limit of 15 parts per million, but water sources in several schools exceeded that limit, so school officials are required by law to remedy the problem. As politicians in New Jersey haggle over the cost of the repairs, O'Malley and other environmentalists point out that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water, and schools testing below the limit should be concerned as well.
In fact, the American Association of Pediatrics has called for lowering the federal drinking water standard to 1 part per million, but don't expect such a change to come anytime soon. The White House has called for slashing the EPA's budget, and Trump's executive order makes it very difficult for regulators to write new rules.
The EPA agreed to update its standards back in 2009 but has yet to develop any new rules. Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in an "unreasonable delay" lawsuit filed against the EPA by environmental justice groups in an effort to force the agency into action.