It’s Not the Pencils, It’s in the Pipes: Lead in St. Louis Public Schools

Illustration by Anna Deen

Illustration by Anna Deen

In the wake of national headlines and outrage over lead contamination in the Flint, Michigan water supply, St. Louis media was abuzz in August after the discovery of unsafe drinking water at 16 schools in the county. Over the summer of 2016, with the water crisis in Flint in mind, the St. Louis Public Schools System began comprehensively testing the water in school buildings across the county for lead content.
The investigation revealed that 88 water fountains and sinks were contaminated with lead in the St Louis school district. Following these results, University City Public Schools have followed suit with their own tests, recently announcing the addition of another 6 contaminated sources to the list. This lead contamination is believed to have entered the water through corrosion of service pipes or lead-containing solder used to connect the pipes. What makes these discoveries a cause for concern is not the presence of lead, but the high content – in some cases, up to five times the content found in tap water in Flint, Michigan.
Lead’s toxicity in the human body has been well established. Exposure, even at low levels, is known to damage brain and nervous system development in children. Studies have linked lead exposure to lower IQ, learning disabilities, and poor academic performance. To combat lead poisoning, the Environmental Protection Agency enforces a cut-off of 15 parts per billion (ppb) for lead content in drinking water. The recent testing in St. Louis County Schools found lead content of approximately 30 ppb in all 16 schools, in some cases reaching a staggering 200-300 ppb. (Compare to Flint, where the 90th percentile measurement for tap water was 25 ppb.)
Clearly, this is a significant health risk to students whose access to clean water at school has been compromised by these contaminated sources. The district board recognized this and stepped into action, allocating $1 million to remediate the issue by replacing the contaminated pipes, sinks, and water fountains. It is not yet known whether this budget will fully cover the costs of replacing all necessary components. Dr. Faisal Khan, the Director of the Saint Louis County Department of Public Health, said that “replacement of old possibly corroded/contaminated pipes is the best long term solution.” To combat any future threats of lead contamination, Khan stated: “St. Louis County will continue to offer testing to all school districts in the area and will continue to work closely with Missouri American Water as well as the Metropolitan Sewer District to ensure safety of the water supply. Wherever a specific concern/issue is reported to us, the Department of Public Health investigates it to the best of our technical abilities and advises the school district on optimal remediation actions.”
As it turns out, lead poisoning is not a new problem in St. Louis – in fact, the city has been fighting this health crisis for decades. A 2014 study found that 9.4 percent of children in the city of St. Louis had lead levels in their blood higher than the threshold for environmental intervention (as set by the CDC), and nearly double that amount had lead levels that, while below this threshold, may pose risks to their brain development. As St. Louis is an old city with old buildings (with roughly 90 percent of homes built before lead paint was banned in 1978), these cases were attributed to lead paints, which release particles into the air when scratched and peeled. Over the years, St. Louis County has actively pursued removing any lead-containing paints from school buildings, and the 2014 statistic actually shows a drop in average blood lead levels from past years. However, the drinking water has not previously been called into attention as a cause for concern. The St. Louis water supply has no lead pipes throughout the main distribution system and is specifically treated to eliminate its risk of leaching lead as it travels through the pipes. Therefore, the presence of lead in water is attributed to smaller pipes connecting the main distribution lines to homes, businesses, and schools, which are the responsibilities of the respective owners.
While the water supply in St. Louis is strictly regulated, the school district’s water had not been tested within the last 10 years, and likely even longer than that. As a result, the health of children who attended these schools and drank from the water fountains was put at risk. Kelly Harris, a doctoral student in the Department of Education at Washington University in St. Louis whose research focuses on the intersections of education and urban public health, stressed the need to pay attention to these “invisible threats to school and student health.” She called attention to the need to broaden the way we think about these health issues, as they are not limited to homes. “I think it brings to the forefront health issues that are already present in the city, and makes us think about those outside of the home … There is a need to be more vigilant in monitoring those environmental threats to the health of school buildings and the health of students. What happens inside school buildings is reflective of what happens outside and we have to look at this as a whole: how student health and school building health are intertwined and both have an impact on students’ school success … We don’t think about the health of buildings as much, but threats can go beyond lead – things like air quality and mold could also present risks to student health.”
Currently, there are no federal or state regulations that mandate regular testing of water in schools if they receive their water from a public source. Khan affirmed: “School districts are not required to test water supplies but they do so out of an abundance of caution and a sense of responsibility towards their students … Various school districts have engaged third parties to conduct testing for them. The St. Louis County Department of Public Health has also reached out to all districts to offer testing.” While the lead issue is now being actively combatted to eliminate health risks to students, this is a precautionary tale that emphasizes the need for schools to inspect their water (and other potential environmental threats) to ensure a safe environment for students. Harris said, “There is definitely room for growth, but many strides have been made … Addressing the health concerns and needs of students and the buildings they’re educated in has to be a priority beyond maintaining vaccination records and employing school nurses. We know there are links between students’ physical well being and their school success. Schools have to actively engage in ensuring students have a healthy environment and the resources they need to be at their best and ready to learn.” When it comes to health safety, we cannot make assumptions that could put both the health and educations of students at risk.

Lily Sanborn is a sophomore from Bethesda, MD. She can be reached at

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