A North Carolina nonprofit is taking applications from up to 800 Georgia schools to test lead levels in their water supply.

Savannah-Chatham County Public School System has decided not to apply for the funding to check schools for the potential threat despite studies showing that the county currently leads the state in childhood lead poisoning.

Sheila Blanco, Public Information Manager at Savannah-Chatham schools, says the school system doesn’t need the grant funding because it is already conducting its own research with the City of Savannah on the school system’s oldest buildings. So far, those tests have shown that school water is safe, she said.

“They have already begun doing plumbing profiles of each of our school buildings – starting with Charles Ellis and Savannah Arts Academy (our two oldest buildings and therefore those most likely to have any identified issues if there were some to be found),” Blanco said.

More testing is planned, she said. She did not give a time frame for those tests. Many buildings in the district are new or have undergone renovations in the past decade as a result of several Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax initiatives, approved by the taxpayers over the years.

Laura Walker, Environmental Manager at the City of Savannah, clarified that lead piping is primarily a concern in older buildings with aging infrastructure. Because many of Savannah’s public schools are newly built or renovated, they are less likely to have lead pipes, she said.

Referencing a new EPA rule that will regulate lead testing she said, “Per that rule, there are some exemptions. Anything built after 2014 is exempt.”

Walker further explained that the Clean Water Act banned the use of lead pipes in 1986. The City of Savannah has begun to profile schools that have been in use since before 1986. So far, lead piping has not been found, she said.

According to Laura Walker, Savannah’s piping infrastructure and water supply are not the most common source of lead exposure.

She said, “There are three sources of lead in Savannah and all communities. Paint is a big one because we have such an old housing stock, the soil, and then potentially water.”

Walker clarified that the water itself is not the source of lead, but that drinking water can become contaminated with lead. She said, “It’s not in the water itself. It’s when the water comes in contact with that plumbing.”

RTI International, the North Carolina group funding the Georgia school project, wants to avert health problems in children as a result of lead poisoning. Water running through lead pipes is not the only source of lead poisoning. Lead paint and lead in soil are common contributors, factors that make Savannah one of the top places in the state for lead threats.

The Environmental Protection Agency is working on a national framework for lead testing in public schools and The White House recently announced bipartisan support for the eradication of lead pipes in schools.

The EPA issued funding to Georgia through the WIIN Grant, assistance designed to help small communities improve their drinking water. North Carolina’s RTI was contracted for the job.

Georgia schools interested in applying can enroll in a pre-registration webinar to receive an enrollment PIN and detailed instructions through February 2022.

Georgia schools can enroll at this site.

There is currently space for 800 schools, but more funding is expected this fall. When more funding comes through, more schools will be added and access will be expanded to include child care centers.

The CDC has established that no amount of lead in drinking water is safe because it is toxic even at low levels. While adults can be impacted negatively by lead contamination, concern is especially high for children exposed to lead because of its adverse impact on development.

Blanco did not directly address the issue of potential lead levels in the water but did establish that, currently, no lead pipes have been found in the assessed Chatham County schools.

“Part of the plumbing profile includes checking for lead pipes. None have been found to date,” she said

Jennifer Redmon, who is a senior environmental health scientist and chemical risk assessment specialist at RTI says lead can occur in areas other than piping, such as faucet fixtures.

“Our goal with this program is really to identify all lead, every tap, and provide recommendations for no cost and low cost solutions to eliminate lead exposure for all the children that are at schools and childcare centers,” she said.

Redmon’s organization recommends that all schools should be thoroughly flushing their water supplies before reopening after long COVID-related closures.

“Schools that are closed for summer or have COVID closures should be flushing every tap before students come back because water that stagnates in the pipe can accumulate lead,” she said.

Laura Walker confirmed that flushing water sources regularly is a useful strategy to mitigate potential lead exposure through water supply. If there is potential that a water source has come in contact with lead, she recommends flushing daily.

When you flush contaminated water by running the tap, Walker said, “Any water that has sat in your system overnight, if you had lead it would come in contact. Because water’s under pressure, it will move out, it will move away. So you’ll be getting fresh water.”

The City of Savannah is not the area’s only water supplier and residents should follow up with their individual water provider to confirm lead prevention protocols in their homes. More information and resources from the City of Savannah can be found on their website and via the city’s Lead Free Savannah campaign.

Environmental protections nationally have severely cut exposure to lead through sources like paint and gasoline. Redmon explained that testing water sources for lead is both a natural progression of environmental policy and a source of growing concern about eroding infrastructure.

While RTI’s partnership with Georgia’s Department of Education is currently limited to 800 schools, testing water supply is an important step in eradicating childhood lead exposure.

RTI is providing resources beyond the grant including educational materials at cleanwaterforuskids.org/georgia.