National Science Foundation     |     Directorate for Engineering  (ENG)
Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, & Transport Systems  (CBET)
CBET Research Highlights 
Notable Accomplishments from CBET Awards
1440 - Part A - Addressing Lead Contamination in US School Drinking Water
Marc Edwards  -  Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Outcome or Accomplishment:  Researchers at Virginia Tech have discovered that lead-contaminated drinking water in US schools and daycare centers is a far more prevalent problem than previously thought.  They have designed sampling protocols that identify lead hazards often missed, and developed approaches to stop contamination problems when they are discovered.

Marc Edwards Image 1
- Figure 1.  Potential sources of lead contamination in school drinking water are almost always unseen, and include leaded brass (e.g., brass faucets or water fountains), old lead pipe, and old leaded solder at pipe connections.
Credit for All Images:  Marc Edwards, Simoni Triantafyllidou and Yanna Lambrinidou, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA

Marc Edwards Image 2
- Figure 2.  The project team identified extensive problems in 38 states and the District of Columbia, by compiling case-studies based on peer-reviewed literature, the popular press, and field sampling.  The map features locations in the US where elevated lead in school drinking water was detected at least once between 1986 and 2009.  Blue pins correspond to specific towns where lead-in-school-water problems have been found, and yellow pins correspond to states that have been recorded in government documents as having had lead-in-school-water problems.

Marc Edwards Image 3
- Figure 3.  The project team's research partners included high school students in Washington, DC schools.  A Washington International School student collects a water sample for lead quantification from her school cafeteria, and records the sample ID (Left).  The student was among eight Washington, DC high school student volunteers who joined the project team in extensive sampling of drinking water outlets in 2009 (Right).  The school's service learning director, Ms. Kate Meenan-Waugh, welcomed the project as part of the school's community service learning program (Right).

Marc Edwards Image 4
- Figure 4.  Lead particles were identified in kitchen faucet aerators in cases of childhood lead poisoning from drinking water (Left).  However, lead contamination of water is not always visible (Middle), even though exposure from a single glass can sometimes be as damaging as eating a small pile of lead paint chips (Right).

Impact:  Lead contaminated drinking water endangers the health of children at US schools and daycare centers.  Yet currently there is no federal law protecting children from lead in school water.  This research team has developed approaches that can be used to better detect and address lead-in-water problems.  Funding can be used to ensure safer learning environments at individual schools and daycare centers, and to inform the potential development of health-protective regulations.

Explanation/background:  Exposure to toxic lead can hinder children's learning and social abilities.  Because no level of lead exposure is safe, and the US Government has set a goal to eliminate childhood lead poisoning by 2020, the Virginia Tech research team sought to examine a serious problem that has been overlooked - - exposure of children to lead-contaminated water in US schools and daycare centers.  The researchers have documented problems with high levels of lead in school drinking water in at least 38 states and the District of Columbia.  They have also discovered that levels of lead at some school taps sometimes exceed "hazardous waste" concentrations.  This means that a few glasses of school water can, in some cases, cause lead poisoning.  Schools and daycare centers, however, are not required to test for or stop lead contamination of water.  This NSF-funded research, carried out in collaboration with several schools and grassroots environmental health organizations, improves our understanding of the health risk posed by school drinking water, and offers tools to identify and fix contamination.

CBET Research Highlight - Part B - Engineering Technical Information

1440 - Addressing Lead Contamination in Drinking Water of US Schools

Marc Edwards  -  Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Background:  Lead (Pb) is widely recognized as one of the most pervasive environmental health threats in the US, decreasing IQ and cognition of exposed children.  Lead exposure through drinking water consumption is not generally considered a significant source of lead in the US.  Although the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public water supplies through an "action level" for lead at home taps of 15 g/L, this regulation does not extend to drinking water in schools.  Instead, the US EPA provides non-enforceable guidelines for schools and daycare centers, which recommend that drinking water not exceed 20 g/L of Pb in a 250 mL first-draw sample.  There is no enforceable national, state or local lead standard for water of US schools and daycare centers.
Controlling lead hazards from drinking water in schools and daycare centers is an important, yet intractable task, for several reasons.  First, many schools are unaware that they have complete responsibility for identifying and remediating this significant environmental hazard, and they often lack funding to do so.  Second, school buildings have intricate plumbing systems, sometimes very old, containing multiple potential sources of water-lead contamination.  These include lead pipe, lead-containing solder joints, and system components made of lead-containing brass.  Third, the intermittent pattern of water consumption in schools, with periods of little or no use on weekends, holidays and over summer break, produces very long stagnation periods of water inside the piping.  This water use pattern is considered "worst case" for causing release of hazardous levels of lead from the plumbing and contaminating the water supply.  Finally, school children, especially those attending elementary school or daycare centers, are much more vulnerable to adverse health effects from lead exposure than teenagers or adults.

Results:  The Virginia Tech research team has demonstrated that certain water sampling and analysis methods can underestimate lead quantity, causing some taps to be identified as "safe" when they are not.  It has proposed protocols to better identify lead-in-water hazards by sampling under worst-case situations and using stronger acid in analysis.  Bioavailability experiments in simulated gastric fluid have suggested that lead particles ingested through drinking water consumption can dissolve and thus be rendered toxic.  Contrary to prior understanding, bio-kinetic models have predicted that consumption of tap water in schools with elevated lead can significantly increase incidence of childhood lead poisoning.  Finally, this research has demonstrated the presence of serious lead-in-water problems even in brand new construction due to leaded brass, which helped create an impetus for Federal Regulation in 2011 to ban such brass effective 2014.

Scientific Uniqueness:  This NSF-funded research is the first comprehensive study of lead-in-water contamination at US schools and daycare centers, addressing a significant public health concern that has been "orphaned."  Practical tools have been developed to identify and mitigate lead-in-water problems depending on the lead source, and to reassess the public health risks involved.

CBET Strategic Outcome Goals include:
- 1Discovery:  This NSF-funded research has developed comprehensive mapping of lead contamination cases in US school drinking water.  It has also systematically reassessed the significant public health risk from lead at the tap.  To properly detect lead-in-water hazards when they exist, Dr. Edwards and his research team at Virginia Tech have developed sampling and analytical protocols designed to capture lead contamination that conventional protocols often miss.  The research offers analysis and practical tools to better address lead in US school drinking water - - an important step in creating healthy learning environments and in eliminating childhood lead poisoning in the US.
- 2Learning:  The success of the project relied on collaborations with motivated high school students and grassroots environmental health organizations.  Extensive effort was made (not always successfully) to involve diverse public and private schools across the country.  Schools that responded favorably to the call for water sampling benefited from presentations, water sampling training and execution under close supervision by the project team, free-of-charge water analysis at Virginia Tech laboratories, result notification and follow-up testing/remedial recommendations if contamination was identified.  Unfortunately, many schools were unwilling to participate, because they did not have funding to resolve problems if high lead was detected.
- 3Research Infrastructure:  Virginia Tech researchers have developed a standard forensic evaluation protocol as an experimental tool to relate the pattern of lead leaching into water to the specific type of lead plumbing source/configuration, which is critical for the identification and remediation of problems on a case-by-case basis.  In addition, traditional use of existing biokinetic models as tools for predicting children's blood lead levels has been expanded to incorporate modern public health goals and acute health concerns.

Transformative Research:  This NSF-funded research is potentially transformative because it highlights an underestimated important public health risk affecting the nation's most sensitive populations (i.e., children), for the best known neurotoxin (lead), which is not currently addressed by any health-protective regulatory framework.  The work aims to create a much-needed paradigm shift regarding the potential public health hazard to children from lead in water of schools and daycares.  This problem has been typically left unidentified or unaddressed, due to insufficient or improper testing of water, inadequate public outreach, or analyses of the health threat that downplay the true risks to children.

Intellectual Merit:  The intellectual merit of this activity lies in assessing the true risks from lead in school drinking water by identifying the effect of sampling protocol and sample handling on particulate and soluble lead detection.  In addition, significant acute and chronic health concerns were identified through testing of lead particles and through bio-kinetic modeling, which predicts children's blood lead levels from various scenarios of drinking water consumption at schools/daycare centers.  The work also demonstrated that modern plumbing codes were inadequate to protect children, by identifying taps in brand new buildings with lead-in-water consistently 20 times higher than federal standards, which led to revisions in product testing and laws on allowable lead content of new plumbing devices.

Broader Impacts of this research include:
- 1Benefits to society: This research addresses a problem that impacts students all over the US, with obvious societal implications for children's health, through interdisciplinary lenses including environmental engineering, statistics, pediatrics/epidemiology and anthropology.  In addition, the research has implications for environmental justice and provision of safe learning environments.  If, as the Virginia Tech team has found, responsibility for addressing potential lead-in-water problems is effectively delegated to parents, teachers, and individuals outside the school community who are usually unsuspecting of lead-in-water contamination, unaware of the health risks it might pose, unable to implement testing and remediation programs, and trusting that if there were a significant environmental hazard at school it would be controlled effectively and expediently by experts, then the likelihood of action is far more likely among communities of means (in relation to time, political influence, and financial assets) than among disadvantaged communities.  Finally, as the anti-obesity movement and environmental advocates create increasing move to ban bottled drinks at schools and to encourage the consumption of tap water, ensuring that the tap water is safe becomes important.
- 2Participation of underrepresented groups:  Elevated lead-in-water levels have been loosely associated with disadvantaged school populations (e.g., non-white, living in poverty or belonging to single-parent households), and with reading and math scores that are typically lower than the overall average.  Direct involvement of such students in the research empowers their active participation in controlling the quality of their own learning environments and creates an interest in science for social good.
- 3Teaching, Training, and Learning: This project involved participation of high school student volunteers in water sampling and result interpretation, as part of their school community service/policy projects.  Prior to a sampling event, the students watch a presentation by the project team and are trained to appropriately collect drinking water samples, an activity that is then undertaken with supervision from the project team.  Participating students saw first-hand how application of scientific knowledge can solve real-world problems.  At Virginia Tech, two female PhD students were supported by this NSF grant, and two undergraduate visiting students participated in the research as part of the NSF-REU program Interdisciplinary Water Sciences and Engineering, in collaboration with the Engineering Education Department at Virginia Tech.
- 4Results disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding:  In the first 18 months of a 3-year grant, this NSF research has produced 14 peer-reviewed publications, one of which will be expanded into a book chapter.  The interdisciplinary collaborators have given presentations at national conferences, participating schools, and National Public Radio (NPR), and briefed members of Congress considering new regulation to ban lead in brass which was ultimately passed with strong bi-partisan support in early 2011.  The research also provided impetus to revised product testing standards and an award-winning Associated Press investigative report on lead in schools.

Program Director:
Debra Reinhart
CBET Program Director - Environmental Engineering
NSF Award Number:   0933246
Award Title:   Acute And Chronic Health Effects From Lead In Drinking Water Of Schools And Day Care Facilities: Detection, Bio-Availability, And Predicted Impacts On Blood Lead
Principal Investigator:   Marc Edwards
Institution Name:   Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Program Element Code:   1440
CBET Research Highlight:   Fiscal Year 2012
Approved by CBET on:   27 March 2012

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This CBET Research Highlight was Updated on 18 April 2012.