By now, school children in North Carolina have brought markers, scissors, folders and other supplies to class. However, there is one key supply that many of them lack as they begin a new school year: safe, lead-free water at school. 

Lead in drinking water is a serious threat that often goes unrecognized. Despite federal action to limit public exposure to lead, it continues to endanger the health and well-being of North Carolinians, especially children. Of the few North Carolina school districts that have tested water for lead, the results are alarming. 

Only two counties in North Carolina have voluntarily tested their schools’ drinking water, and they found unsafe levels of lead in the fixtures of its oldest schools. With these confirmed cases of lead in schools’ water, it would be a stretch to suggest that schools in other counties are free from contamination.

While these results are news to many of us, they should not be surprising. Until 2014, significant amounts of lead were used in faucets and fountains. Current state and federal law is not adequate enough to protect children because it does not require schools to test for lead in water. The state should be doing everything in its power to limit childhood exposure to lead, and that begins with identifying sources of exposure at schools.

Lead is highly toxic and especially damaging to children, impairing how they learn, grow and behave. It only takes a tiny amount of lead to do harm.

In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that “in children, low levels of [lead] exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.” Medical researchers estimate that more than 24 million children in America today risk losing IQ points due to low levels of lead.

Fortunately, we also know how to solve this problem. Quite simply, we need to “get the lead out.” That means replacing faucets, fountains and other lead-bearing parts that can contaminate the water children drink. 

Until we can ensure that our school’s water delivery systems are entirely lead-free, we will need to install filters certified to remove lead. Lastly, we will need follow-up testing to ensure that lead levels in school’s do not exceed one part per billion, the limit recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

No doubt, this “get the lead out” regimen might seem daunting at first. So, let’s think of what we tell our kids when they are facing a big homework assignment. We tell them it’s important to get started - piece by piece tackling the problem until the job is done. Some school districts have already started to do what they can on their own.

The state can help, and our representatives are tackling this issue. House Bill 386, titled “Ensure Safety of School Drinking Water,” would regulate lead testing at schools, enforce a tougher standard for legal lead levels and create remediation funds for schools. State representatives, including Dennis Riddell from Alamance County, are taking this direct action to protect children in North Carolina.

Lead is a threat to North Carolinians, regardless of their politics. Now is the time for our leaders to declare their commitment to get the lead out of our schools’ water. The bill sponsors know this, and with their leadership, a future where families know that they can send their kids to school and have clean water to drink is possible. Protecting our childrens’ brains should be a no-brainer.