Protecting the most vulnerable: Lead in drinking water testing requirements for child care centers

Lindsay McCormick, Project Manager and Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

Children under the age of 6 are most vulnerable to the detrimental impacts of lead exposure. Even at low levels, lead exposure can harm the brain development of young children – resulting in learning and behavioral problems for the rest of their lives.

The recent national attention on lead in drinking water and reports of high levels in certain schools has spurred action to address the problem in schools. As a result of state-level requirements and voluntary state programs, many schools across the country are testing their drinking water for lead and taking actions to fix problems.

In contrast, child care centers (also called day care centers or early childhood education centers) have gone relatively unnoticed – even though they serve children at their most vulnerable ages.

We decided to take a closer look at the issue by examining state child care licensing regulations, recent legislative actions, and voluntary programs addressing drinking water testing at child care centers. Through our research, we identified several states that have or are developing proactive programs to test for lead in child care centers’ drinking water and take action when high levels are found. Although our focus was on states, we also identified cities addressing this issue with local resources.

We identified five states – Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington – and one city – New York City – that require licensed child care centers to test their drinking water for lead. Descriptions of each of the regulations are detailed in the table below.

We also identified voluntary programs in Oregon and Cincinnati, Ohio that assist child care centers with testing for lead in drinking water and remediation actions.

Click here for more information on each requirement, including the types of facilities covered, frequency of testing, and information about select voluntary programs.

The requirements vary widely in terms of testing protocol, standard, corrective action, and notification to parents and staff. Several of these differences deserve attention.

Each of the requirements takes a different approach to the standard used for testing – the lead level at which corrective action and/or notification is required. New Jersey and New York City use 15 ppb, Washington uses the U.S. EPA Lead Action Level (90th percentile above 15 ppb), Rhode Island requires that the water source is either lead-safe or lead-free, and Connecticut does not specify a standard. The voluntary program in Oregon recommends following EPA’s 3Ts guidelines, which advises child care centers to take action at levels greater than 20 ppb, and the voluntary program in Cincinnati relies on the 15 ppb action level.

None of these standards are based on the health risk to children. In an earlier blog, we provide an assessment of a health-based benchmark for lead in drinking water. We derived our assessment from a recent EPA scientific analysis and suggest levels that would be more protective than EPA’s current guidelines.

Communicating with parents and staff is a significant part of any testing program for lead in child care centers, and EDF favors a transparent approach to testing. Not all of the regulations require notification of parents and staff about testing results. Washington and New Jersey require notification of parents if the center finds elevated levels of lead, and New Jersey also requires posting the results inside the facility. New York City goes even further and makes all results available in an online database (Child Care Connect) that allows parents to search records for any licensed child care program in the city.

In addition, the types of facilities covered by the requirement varies significantly. We provide those details here. In general, the requirements do not apply to unlicensed facilities, which often includes small family child care facilities based in a caregiver’s home.

 

With the renewed attention on lead in drinking water, we are encouraged to see states and cities beginning to take action. And the landscape is rapidly changing: 10 states and the District of Columbia are currently considering requirements that would require lead in drinking water testing and correction in child care centers. We encourage other states to adopt requirements to better protect children from lead exposure in child care centers.

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