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Reducing Exposure to Lead via School Drinking Water in Vermont

This work is supported by Middlebury College

Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, Senior Research Project Supplement, Faculty Research Assistance Fund, Undergraduate Summer Research Funds, and the Anderson Chair in Environment and Biosphere Studies

Parts of this project have been conducted in close partnership with the Addison Central School District and the Vermont Department of Health

This project lies at the intersection of my personal and professional worlds. As a parent and an environmental chemist who teaches and conducts research related to environmental pollution and environmental health, I followed the national stories about lead in drinking water closely. The toxicity of Flint’s water was initially detected because of its off-color, bad taste, illnesses, and a host of issues like hair loss and skin rashes — and of course because of the heroic work of its citizens and community organizers. Lead itself, however, cannot be seen or tasted directly, nor are its toxic effects immediately obvious. The quiet, incremental, and cumulative nature of lead as a neurotoxin is part of its danger.

But however extreme, tragic, and frustratingly preventable the situation was in Flint, contamination of drinking water with lead is not unique to Flint. Lead pipes and lead-containing solder, faucets, and spigots represent an invisible toxic legacy that communities all across the country (and world) are facing. And yet, out-of-sight is rarely out-of-mind for a chemist. My role as an environmental chemist is to make the invisible world of atoms and molecules visible and, in doing so, hopefully promote human and environmental health.

The larger Pb investigation in my lab has included several sub-projects, including

Project 1: Testing ACSD School Drinking Water for Pb

Project 2: Evaluating the Efficacy of Vermont Act 60 for Reducing Exposure to Pb via School Drinking Water

Project 3: Evaluating the Efficacy of System Flushing for Reducing Exposure to Pb via School Drinking Water

Background on Health Effects of Lead

Health effects of lead exposure include irreversible developmental neurotoxicity, disruption of the hormone and reproductive systems (Sanborn et al.), and gastrointestinal and cardiovascular issues. Even at low levels, lead has been known to decrease IQ scores. Lead exposures occur through various means, including from dust and soil contamination from earlier use of lead-based paint and leaded gasoline. The EPA estimates that ~20% of lead exposure is through drinking water. While no level of lead exposure is considered to be safe for anyone, exposure of children to lead is particularly concerning. Children absorb into their bodies a higher fraction of ingested lead and the detrimental effects of developmental exposures can be irreversible (Ellenhorn et al.). Because developing children spend much of their time at school, exposure to lead through drinking water in schools is an important issue (Edwards and Best; Laidlaw et al.). Ultimately, it is the amount of lead in a person’s blood that is considered the best indicator of potential health concerns. Vermont considers blood lead levels >5 ug/dL (micrograms per deciliter) to be elevated. Steady progress is being made on reducing the number of children with elevated levels. Between 2006 and 2017, the fraction of 1-2 year olds with elevated blood lead dropped from ~19-20% to 4-5%.

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