RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia is launching a voluntary program to help schools and child care centers detect potentially dangerous levels of lead in drinking water.
As the effort gets underway, it’s unclear how many facilities have followed through with lead testing since state lawmakers passed bills requiring planning and reporting years ago.
Dr. Tony Singh, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water, said lead exposure can negatively impact brain development, especially for younger children.
Singh said $1.1 million in funding from the Environmental Protection Agency will be used to collect and analyze 40,000 drinking water samples. He said that amount of money for lead testing is unprecedented for his office. He said they’re expecting another pot of funding to follow and they have separate money available to help schools fix problems if they’re detected.
“We knew that these problems existed earlier also but, because of a lack of funding, we weren’t able to do it and I think the schools and the child care centers were in the same boat,” Singh said in an interview on Monday. “Right now, it’s the perfect time when we have the appropriate resources.”
Singh is encouraging schools to sign up for the program this summer but free testing isn’t expected to start until the fall.
Singh isn’t sure if the program will be able to meet the need but he expects to gather more information from schools during the enrollment process. It’s unclear how many total water sources need to be tested for lead across the state and how much that could cost.
“We do not have an accurate number of samples,” Singh said. “I have heard that many, many school divisions are preparing for such sampling on their own and we expect to see a higher number of sampling results moving forward.”
If there is not enough money to cover all requests, VDH said facilities would be prioritized based on various factors, including affordability criteria. The state will also prioritize those that primarily serve students age 6 and younger and buildings that were constructed before 1986, when lead plumbing was more common.
The voluntary program comes after Virginia lawmakers passed a law in 2017 requiring schools to come up with a plan to test for lead. In 2020, the General Assembly passed a similar law impacting licensed child care centers.
“Only a handful that I’m aware of had done any sort of testing back in 2017. I mean, we’re talking single digits,” said Senator Jeremy McPike, who sponsored the bills. “What we found is there is a tremendous amount of elevated lead in some of these buildings that folks really didn’t realize.”
McPike said, since those laws took effect, thousands of drinking water samples have come back positive for lead.
Despite progress, problems may still be lurking in some places.
Lawmakers didn’t set specific standards for retesting, which McPike said is necessary. They also didn’t set a specific deadline for when schools and child care centers have to execute their lead testing plans.
McPike said legislators were concerned about passing an unfunded mandate but, since then, resources have improved. He said he wants to revisit the timeline in the future.
“We know that some have complied and done a great job but, if there is still one kid out there that is consuming lead unknowingly, I want to know about it and fix that in Virginia,” McPike said.
Another law that passed in 2020 required school boards to “take all steps necessary to notify parents if testing results indicate lead contamination that exceeds 10 parts per billion.”
The law also required schools to submit their testing plans and report any results to the Virginia Department of Health.
Two years later, Singh said VDH doesn’t know what percentage of total school divisions have crafted and executed their testing plan. He said very few have submitted information to the VDH — only the school divisions of Hanover County, Chesterfield County and Virginia Beach have sent in plans.
Singh said the lack of submissions may be because other school divisions completed testing before the reporting requirement took effect in 2020.
“Systems have had an opportunity to go through and test and we need to start to see real data and real results to understand the order of magnitude,” McPike said.
Virginia public schools (K-12) and child care centers interested in participating in this program should enroll here. Selected schools and child care centers will be notified by the VDH team.