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South Carolina health department offering free lead testing for schools, child care centers

water lead testing (copy)

Richard DeMille, an environment staff professional with S&ME, tests water for lead at Ladson Elementary School on Dec. 9, 2019. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control received a $519,000 grant to offer free lead testing to schools throughout the state. File/Staff

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is offering to test the water at schools and day care centers for free after receiving a federal grant. 

The health department received a $519,000 grant as part of the Environmental Protection Agency's Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. The money allows the state department to sample both drinking and cooking water at schools and day care centers for lead. 

Lead poisoning is especially dangerous for children because their bodies are still in development. Therefore, they tend to absorb more lead from their environment than adults, said DHEC spokesman Derrek Asberry.

Small amounts of lead in the blood system can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia in kids. The department hopes the testing will prevent any future cases of lead poisoning in children. 

"The only way to know if there is lead in drinking water is to test," Asberry said in an email. 

The state already tests the water supply for lead but has no control over what happens once it reaches a building's pipes. Lead often seeps into drinking water in homes and buildings because of old plumbing with pipes that contain the poisonous chemical. Buildings constructed before 1986 are most likely to be contaminated with lead, according to DHEC.

Lead is sometimes more commonly found in schools and child care centers because there are extended periods of time where the water remains in the pipes, absorbing the chemical. The added testing allows state officials to make sure old pipes are not contaminating water once the water reaches schools and child care centers. 

"The potential for lead to leach into water increases the longer the water remains in contact with leaded plumbing materials," Asberry said. 

The state health department will prioritize schools in opportunity zones, which are identified areas for targeted economic growth. The agency will also prioritize schools serving younger children, in Pre-K or kindergarten, and buildings that are more likely to contain lead plumbing. 

Charleston itself has a poor history with lead. In 1992, the city topped the Environmental Protection Agency's list of lead concentration in city water systems. Since then, the city has gotten its lead problem under control. In 2018, 17 out of 55 homes tested by the city reported trace amounts of lead in water, according to the city's website. 

The EPA recommends that schools and child care centers follow the 3T's — training, testing and taking action — to reduce lead in their buildings. The agency suggests that schools take the time to learn about lead in drinking water, develop a plan to sample water and establish routine practices to ensure that lead poisoning doesn't affect schoolchildren. 

If state officials detect lead in any of the schools or day care centers, the department will provide information about the measures schools and child care centers can take to address lead issues. 

The grant only covers the cost of testing, so DHEC officials are unable to use it to remedy lead issues in schools. However, the department's officials are prepared to provide "technical assistance," the news release said. 

Schools or child care centers that want to have drinking or cooking water tested can contact the department's grant manager for the program at 803-898-4214.

Follow Libby Stanford on Twitter @libbystanford.

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