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Unclear Which N.H. Schools Testing for Lead Contamination in Water

Just as the school year began, the Manchester School District announced there was lead in the drinking water at some of its schools.

That contamination is now cleaned up. But in the aftermath of Flint, Michigan’s massive drinking water crisis, this small scare in Manchester highlights a concern among New Hampshire’s public health officials: there is no comprehensive lead testing done on drinking water in schools across the state.

But there is an effort to change that. 

Manchester’s drinking water comes from Lake Massabesic, just east of the city. On the shore of that lake there’s a sprawling complex, and David Miller, who works for Manchester Waterworks, stands above the the largest water filter in the state.

"Today probably about two-and-a-half to three million gallons of water is running through each one of these filters right now," Miller says.

The math is a little eye-popping. In this cavernous, immaculately cleaned room, there are eight filters, each the size of a large, backyard swimming pool. On average, 18 million gallons a day runs through here on the way to the city. The water is filtered with ozone, then carbon, then chemicals.

"We wouldn’t find any lead in this water. [Lead] doesn’t come from the lake, it doesn’t come from the treatment process," says Miller.

That’s true across the state – source water in New Hampshire is pretty much universally uncontaminated by lead.

So that begs the question: How did lead get into Manchester schools? The answer has less to do with the way we filter water, and more with how that water corrodes infrastructure.

Christine Bowman with the Department of Environmental Services says schools are particularly vulnerable.

"The infrastructure tends to be older," says Bowman. "Budgets have been squeezed over the years. Then we have the most vulnerable population, spending many hours of their day there, and consuming water there."

The pipes that run from Lake Massabesic to schools in Manchester are lead free. But there is still lead in plumbing inside homes and schools – minimal amounts in soldering, sink fixtures, water fountains.

Credit Jack Rodolico
David Miller helps supervise Manchester Waterworks, which filters water for the state's largest city.

If water flows past the lead, there’s no problem. But when the water sits stagnant in the pipes – let’s say, during summer vacation – lead leaches out.

That means if schools don’t flush pipes after summer break – or even after a long weekend – kids in those schools could get some lead exposure.

The water crisis in Flint prompted DES to write a letter to school districts last spring.

"I completely agree that we do not expect to uncover a Flint-type of situation," says Bowman with DES. 

DES has no authority to make schools test for lead. But last spring they asked schools to do just that.

And as of the start of this school year, only six school districts out of 176 had responded to DES. Of the six that tested for lead, only Nashua shared the results with state public health officials.

"One of the big issues with lead is that the effects of lead exposure can’t be remedied. Over time they can just be managed," says Bowman.

This fall, DES will send a survey out to all school districts in the state. The hope is to get a picture of which schools are testing their water, and what they’re doing if they find lead.

Schools in Manchester are now replacing lead fixtures and water fountains, and officials say the water there is safe.

Before joining NHPR in August 2014, Jack was a freelance writer and radio reporter. His work aired on NPR, BBC, Marketplace and 99% Invisible, and he wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and Northern Woodlands.
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