BLOG POST : May 31, 2017

Clean Water is Public Health: A New Study of Lead Contamination in Mass. Schools

A recent article in The Boston Globe reignited local awareness for the issue of clean drinking water (“High lead levels found in water at hundreds of schools,” May 1, 2017). The article outlines the analysis of a year-long effort to assess the levels of lead and other contaminants in the drinking water at more than 1,000 Massachusetts schools. In other words, the water that thousands of school-aged children are drinking at water fountains or using to refill personal water bottles, a staple of the modern school kit. The results of the testing and analysis indicate a serious public health issue.

More than 90% of the schools returned samples with detectable lead contamination in the water; 58% of those schools had at least one sample above the state regulatory threshold. Copper was also noted in the test results of 265 school samples. A chart summarizing the results was published with the Globe article.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection undertook a program of voluntary testing in fall 2016, in response to localized water testing that showed significant lead contamination in some state schools. A comprehensive, $2.75 million effort was launched to evaluate the extent of the public health impacts more fully (although not every school in the state was examined). Boston Public Schools launched its own testing program independent of the MassDEP evaluation.

Explanations for this widespread nature of the problem, and many center on the fact that our water infrastructure was created decades ago, when lead soldering was in use. Lead leaches into the drinking water, with levels increasing as water sits and absorbs more of the metal.

What is to be done? Temporary fixes include bottled water, regular flushing of pipes, and short-term plumbing repairs. Yet, those solutions continue to waste precious resources, or add to the waste stream with plastic containers. Long-term solutions include building upgrades and bottle-filling fixtures for reusable containers, but those create considerable budget pressures in already strapped municipal budgets.

At the Waterworks, we see knowledge as one additional method of addressing the problem. Our audiences are eager to learn both about the history of the Greater Boston water system, as well as the newest technological innovations that impact our shared resource. Educating the public about both the public health risks of lead contamination in our water systems, and providing a new hub of conversation for seeking solutions are at the heart of our mission.


Suanna Selby Crowley, PhD, RPA

Manager, Outreach & Development