INDIANAPOLIS— Indiana schools are grappling with how to keep lead out of their drinking water more than three years after a new law took effect that requires school districts to test for it.
WRTV Investigates found hundreds of schools throughout the state that have recently found lead, a toxic metal, in their drinking water.
WRTV is partnering with ABC News Investigative Unit to find out what schools and government leaders are doing to keep children safe.
In 1986, the federal government banned the use of lead pipes, and for good reason.
"It causes so many cognitive damages, learning disabilities, behavioral issues and the list goes on,” said Rep. Carolyn Jackson, D-Hammond.
You can’t see or taste lead, but the poisonous metal can show up in drinking water throughout Indiana--- typically it gets into the water via plumbing fixtures and service lines that run from the water main to the building.
Jackson filed legislation after hearing about problems in her own district— lead levels in the drinking water at seven northwestern Indiana schools that exceeded the federal action level.
"To have it in schools is just horrible,” said Jackson.
Jackson’s law, which took effect in 2020, requires Indiana schools to test at least once by January 1, 2023, but Jackson said some schools are in the process.
Rep. Jackson: We ran into COVID so that stalemated a lot of the testing because schools were closed.
WRTV: Is there any penalty in place for schools that say we're not going to do it?
Rep. Jackson: No there's not a penalty for it.
WRTV: If a school hasn't had any issues, when do they have to do it again?
Rep. Jackson: They would not have to do it again if they have not had any issues. But we haven’t had any schools who have refused to.
Indiana law mandates schools take action if the results show lead higher than 15 parts per billion—the federal action level for lead in the water.
120 Water, a Zionsville company, contracts with the Indiana Finance Authority to provide federally funded lead testing for schools—a voluntary program that started back in 2017.
Isaac Pellerin, VP of Marketing at 120 Water, said people may be surprised to learn how often lead is found in schools.
“I think they would be surprised,” said Pellerin. “You think it’s a problem that’s been solved a long time ago. Water comes into contact with lead through fixtures or plumbing, internal in the building or through the service line that goes from the water main in the street to the building— that’s where we find lead.”
According to the EPA, problems can pop up at schools depending on several factors:
- the chemistry of the water (acidity and alkalinity) and the types and amounts of minerals in the water,
- the amount of lead it comes into contact with,
- the temperature of the water,
- the amount of wear in the pipes,
- how long the water stays in pipes, and
- the presence of protective scales or coatings inside the plumbing materials.
“As chemistry changes and water moves through the pipes, we end up finding that there can be instances of lead,” said Pellerin. “We have tested thousands of schools because we run programs across the country."
120 Water samples faucets and water fountains typically first thing in the morning, which allows them to determine if lead has accumulated in water that sat in the plumbing system overnight.
The results are posted on the Indiana Finance Authority’s website and show since 2017, hundreds of Indiana schools had results above 15 ppb, the federal action level for lead.
During the 2017-2018 round of testing, 63 percent of schools had at least one fixture that was at or over the action level of 15 ppb.
During the 2019-2023 round of testing, 26 percent of schools had at least one fixture that met the action level.
But the Indiana Finance Authority data does not include schools that have tested on their own.
WRTV Investigates found Indiana does not have a central database where it collects all lead testing results for Indiana schools.
Zionsville Community Schools participated in the Indiana Finance Authority program and had five schools with lead issues in 2021—Eagle Elementary, Stonegate Elementary, Union Elementary, Pleasant View Elementary and Zionsville Middle School.
“With our newer buildings, I was surprised,” said Dr. Rebecca Coffman, superintendent of Zionsville Community Schools. “Of the five schools, many of those schools were built in 2001, 2007 so I would caution schools not to make assumptions that newer schools don’t need to be tested.”
Zionsville School Community Schools sent this letter to parents notifying them of the results in 2021.
The district replaced problematic fixtures and plans to participate in the Indiana Finance Authority’s next round of testing in 2024, which will be Zionsville’s third time testing since 2017.
“I think it's critical,” said Coffman. “Safety is number one and it's complex and there's never a finish. It's essential to know we are doing everything we can to protect the children in our schools and our staff every single day."
Coffman acknowledged they only have to test once under current law but are going above and beyond what is required.
“We are trying to be very prudent in our approach,” said Coffman. “It’s been our experience that even our newer buildings may measure slightly elevated. So, it’s important to test all buildings regardless of age.”
Zionsville is not alone in the fight to keep water safe.
This 2019 report shows “wide ranging lead contamination in Marion County schools” after 161 schools showed elevated lead levels in the water.
VIEW | The entire 2019 report can be viewed at the end of this article
The same report shows as of 2019 all schools had fixed the problems, but WRTV Investigates followed up and found many of those schools haven’t tested in the last four years.
"The problem with lead is that there really is no safe level,” said Indra Frank, Director of Environmental Health and Water Policy at the Hoosier Environmental Council.
Frank said it’s a good start to require Indiana schools to test for lead, but she says Indiana should lower the action level to no more than 1 ppb.
“There's always more that could happen right, like following the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for the amount of lead in drinking water,” said Frank. “That would make it much more protective."
WRTV Investigates shared our findings with Rep. Carolyn Jackson, including that no state agency is tasked with enforcing the law that requires schools to test for lead. Also, the state does not compile results in one spot for all Indiana schools.
WRTV: Do you plan to introduce any future legislation on this issue?
Rep. Jackson: I am looking at that. I’m looking at creating a pathway where the state can put funds into it, so they can help to pay for the testing in the schools, preschools and nursery schools. Due to the fact that right now all the funds that we have come from the federal government. I’m sure as time goes on with all the schools having to test that we will probably be running out of money. Of course, when you get money from the federal government it is not guaranteed.
If you are concerned your child has been exposed to lead, you can request a blood test from a doctor or your local health department.
In Marion County, call the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at 317-221-2155.
Rep. Jackson also passed legislation that requires daycares, preschools and child care facilities to test for lead by 2026.
In addition, new federal rules require utilities to test water at schools and daycares connected to public water systems starting in 2025.