AUGUSTA, Maine — There’s a poison in drinking water in Maine schools. You can’t see it. You can’t taste it. But you can test for it. It's lead.
“The science on lead has been settled for decades. There is no safe level of lead exposure,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health, even at low exposure levels. Lead is persistent, and it can bioaccumulate in the body over time."
In drinking water, the primary source of lead is pipes. It can also leech into water supply from lead solder on pipes or old brass fountains and fixtures.
- Behavior and learning problems
- Lower IQ and hyperactivity
- Slowed growth
- Hearing problems
Bathing and showering should be safe, even if the water contains lead over EPA’s action level. Human skin does not absorb lead in water.
Testing for lead
In 2019, the Maine Legislature passed a law requiring all public and private kindergarten to grade 12 schools to test for lead in drinking water from Oct. 1, 2021 to May 31, 2022.
The Maine Center for Disease Control announced in May it is extending that deadline because of a large influx of schools submitting samples to the lab for analysis this month. A spokesperson said 53 percent of Maine's school campuses have submitted at least one result, and 74 percent have requested a test kit.
"Within a month or two, when we get through the lag time associated with the analyses, we will have a better picture of which schools still need to perform their initial sampling. A new information package will be sent to all of these schools in the fall and follow-up will take place," Maine CDC communications director Robert Long wrote in an email.
"School-age children are among those particularly vulnerable to health and developmental problems after exposure to high levels of lead," according to the Maine CDC.
The latest data from April 5, 2022 show that more than 1 in every 4 fixtures, faucets, and fountains in Maine schools produced lead above 4 parts per billion, or ppb, which the Maine CDC calls a “level of concern.”
"We need to know where it exists, and this will give us a really good picture of the entire playing field,” Amy LaChance, Maine CDC’s drinking water program director, said.
Lead testing in schools found dozens of sources of lead with levels in the hundreds and even thousands of parts per billion.
However, there is a major caveat to the data that is not expressly detailed in the reports.
"It represents the worst-case scenario,” Lachance said.
One is a “first draw test,” where staff let water sit in pipes for at least eight hours, then test the first 250 milliliters. That usually leads to results with high numbers.
The other is a “follow-up flush test.” In that case, staff run the water in a fixture for about 30 seconds, then test it. That flush test helps figure out where the lead is coming from. It can be more representative of what students consume while at school, according to the Maine CDC.
On Dec. 16, 2021, EPA announced next steps to strengthen the regulatory framework on lead in drinking water. Under the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions, the EPA is requiring municipalities to remove 100 percent of lead service lines by Oct. 16, 2024.
As of June 27, 2019, Maine law requires blood lead tests for all children at 1 and 2 years of age. Doctors previously were screening kids who showed symptoms of lead exposure.
"This is a process we were familiar with, but we were falling behind. We weren't testing enough children," Dr. Genevieve Whiting, a pediatrician with Maine Medical Partners and the secretary of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said.
Whiting said the new rule has some limitations: It only identifies children who are already being exposed to lead.
"Our school-age children, we're not routinely testing. If they're having ongoing exposure past that 1 and 2 years of age, we may not identify it. We're not screening those children so we don't find when there are clusters of elevated lead levels that related to an exposure like through a school, so finding that source is crucial," Whiting said. "If you remediate it in that one place, those hundreds or even thousands of children benefit from it."
But Maine's law does not require schools to fix any unsafe lead fixtures.
Sen. Rebecca Millett, who proposed the bill, said remediation costs money, and funding those fixes requires either two-thirds of each chamber approving the requirement or funding more than 90 percent of the costs of remediation.
"Our hope is that once a district tests and receives any concerning results they will do what is best for their students and educators," Millett told NEWS CENTER Maine in an email.
Some schools are tackling the problem head-on and taking action a step further. One of them is Dr. Lewis S. Libby School, which is the only school in the Milford school district.
"At first I was pretty shocked [seeing the test results]," Adam Moir, facilities director for the district, said. "It's a lot for parents to see their kids go off every day and they're trusting us to make sure they're safe and healthy."
The district also applied for and received federal grants from the U.S. EPA to offset the thousands of dollars it cost to replace the contaminated fixtures.
"That's something that we couldn't in clear conscience wait on. Budgets aside, we need to make sure we have water in the building for our staff and students," Trish Clark, principal and superintendent, said.
But larger districts have higher costs.
In Lewiston, every school in the district had multiple unsafe fixtures.
The large population of parents who do not speak English there had another wrinkle in understanding the problem.
"I panicked, and then I thought about the child's life and all the problems that I saw because it's risking the child's whole life, and it was very scary," Muna Said, a 40-year-old mother of eight children ages 2 to 17, said.
New Mainers Public Health Initiative interim executive director Hibo Omer says the lead problem is more pervasive in poorer communities.
"Because of our circumstances, we see the school as a safe haven, and hearing that broke my heart," Omer said. "The social determinant of health is real because many people live in homes that are leaded, and they're paying a high price for it, and they're not aware of the problems that those lead paints can cause to children."
Living with lead
Danielle Fienberg and her son Theo, 7, are reliving a nightmare. The family moved to Presque Isle from Newark, New Jersey, in August 2021 after the Newark water crisis, when Theo got lead poisoning from the water there.
"It's not enough to hope that something must be done until somebody does something," Fienberg said.
"Imagine knowing that you turn your tap on and that first drop of water is where the lead is most concentrated most of the time, so every morning I was giving him a glass a poison," she said. "I still feel so much shame, and I know I had no control, but I had so much shame that I couldn't protect him effectively."
Theo goes to Pine Street Elementary School in Presque Isle. Maine CDC data show the school tested 27 fixtures. Seven came back above the 4 ppb level of concern.
Fienberg feels schools must be required to fix any lead problems. She said it could prevent thousands of kids from needing special education like Theo does.
"It is crushingly lonely. It is crushingly lonely, especially in the early stages," she said. "We couldn't go to playdates. When we went to the park, we'd have to leave after 15 minutes because he'd be melting down."
"None of it is his fault. And he has, with the appropriate services that I think every single child that has been lead-affected should receive, he has grown to be a wonderful, kind sweet little boy, but he really needed the help."