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Colorado schools don’t have to replace plumbing to avoid lead in drinking water, lawmakers say

Colorado lawmakers want to use millions in federal money to filter lead out of drinking water in schools and childcare centers, not just in Denver, where the problem has been highly publicized, but all across the state.

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Money from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill enacted last year could be used to install safe drinking stations and filters in each of Colorado’s public schools and its childcare centers, state Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, told The Denver Post.

“We need to make sure every kid has access to safe drinking water,” Fields said. “And we need to do what we can to make sure we’re filtering that lead out.”

The upcoming legislation, dubbed the Get the Lead Out of School Drinking Water Act, is the most affordable and immediate way to remove the heavy metal from drinking water in schools, according to Cori Bell, healthy and affordable water advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The other option is to “test and chase,” Bell said, meaning test each school’s water and replace their piping, which would be time consuming and expensive. Providing filters for every school would negate the need for testing.

Plus most schools past a certain age likely have lead piping anyway, Bell said. While Denver banned the use of lead lines in 1971, other cities did not. The federal government didn’t ban use of the heavy metal until 1986 and even then it still allowed lower levels in piping until 2014, she said.

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“If you have a school that was built before 1986 it likely has lead plumbing,” she said.

Of 67 Colorado schools that tested their water in between 2018 and 2020, 40 had lead levels above federal standards.

For nearly $27 million, the state could install filtration systems in schools and childcare facilities across the state, Bell said. Larger schools would receive one standalone “hydration station” for students to fill their water bottles for every 100 students. They’d also receive at least five “point-of-use” filters, which attach directly to faucets, to ensure water used for cooking was also filtered.

Smaller schools with fewer than 50 students would receive one point-of-use filter for every 10 students, Bell said.

After the installation, the program would cost nearly $13 million annually to replace filters and test each school’s drinking water twice a year, Bell said.

In Denver alone, water for up to 84,000 homes flows through pipes with lead solder or lead service lines. Denver Water is moving fast to replace those lines but its $500 million undertaking isn’t expected to be finished until well into the next decade.

Data collected by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment estimates that about 1.8% of children ages 6 and younger within Denver Water’s coverage tested positive for elevated blood levels between 2017 and 2021. That’s lower than the statewide average of 2% and the national average of 2.1%.

But there’s a catch.

Doctors only test a fraction of children statewide for levels of lead in their blood, despite federal requirements for more widespread testing. That gap means state and local officials can’t make any broad assumptions about how widespread the problem might be.

In addition, that data shows “elevated” blood lead levels but doctors say the heavy metal is unsafe in any quantity.

One study, published in September, estimated that 72% of Colorado children younger than 6 had detectable levels of lead in their blood.

The problem with lead piping, service lines and solder is that particles of the heavy metal break off in the drinking water. People who drink that contaminated water store it in their bones, blood and other tissues. Symptoms of lead exposure include constipation, headaches, irritability, loss of appetite and fatigue.

The metal can also damage the nervous system, leading to memory loss and brain damage. In cases of high exposure, it can kill. Still-developing children are particularly susceptible to exposure.

The legislation hasn’t yet been formally proposed, but state Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, said during a news conference Monday that the time is right to capitalize on federal dollars set aside specifically to replace lead infrastructure.

“This is the year to get this done,” Winter said.

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