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EPA and Boston School Department Announce Results of School Drinking Water Project

Release Date: 03/26/04
Contact Information: Contact: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office, (617) 918-1008 Contact: Jonathan Palumbo, Boston School Department (617-635-9494)

For Immediate Release: March 26, 2004; Release # 04-03-08

BOSTON - The US Environmental Protection Agency, in partnership with the Boston Public Health Commission, the Boston Public Schools and the Massachusetts Departments of Public Health and Environmental Protection, today announced the results of a school project to ensure that water used in food preparation at Boston's public schools does not contain lead.

The project was limited to kitchens because, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Boston Public Schools (BPS) evaluated and addressed drinking water in schools. At that time, any school that had elevated lead levels was placed on bottled water for drinking water.

The project focuses on Boston schools that have on-site kitchen facilities that use tap water for preparing food, but also use bottled water for drinking water. Most of Boston's 139 public schools do not have on-site kitchen facilities.

The collaborative project was initiated last year because children spend a significant part of their days at school. The project is part of a broader Healthy Schools Initiative that EPA New England launched several years ago to address indoor air quality and various public health issues at schools across the region.

Testing is the only way to confirm if lead is present or absent in water. Lead is a health risk to infants and young children. Exposure to lead is a significant health concern, especially for pregnant women, infants and young children whose growing bodies tend to absorb more lead than the average adult. Water is one possible exposure route for lead. While exposure to lead from food is not a significant source of lead exposure, it is important to reduce exposure to lead wherever possible.

As a result on the ongoing project with EPA and its city and state partners, BPS has taken the following actions for using water in food preparation:

    • A school-wide policy has been implemented requiring at least a one-minute manual flush each day in all kitchens that prepare food.
    • Automatic flushing equipment will be installed in the next six weeks at 22 school buildings with on-site food preparation facilities and the school department's Central Kitchen Facility on Columbia Road.
    • For those schools using bottled water for drinking water, the school department has purchased signs to be installed in school bathrooms advising students and staff that hand-wash sinks and other sinks are to be used only for hand washing and cleaning purposes.
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant said that these were preventive measures. "We have taken these steps to ensure that the water used in the school-based kitchen facilities is safe for our students," Payzant said. "Through our consultations with state and city environmental and health officials, we believe this new policy will eliminate the possibility of our students being exposed to lead in the water in their schools. Parents should feel assured that these steps will protect their children."

Roger Schwartz, director of the Boston Public Health Commission's Community Initiatives Bureau, echoed the superintendent's remarks, saying, "This partnership has ensured that the health of Boston students is protected. Lead in drinking water is a serious health threat for children, but the preventive measures taken by the Boston Public Schools – such as the distribution of bottled water and new flushing requirements in kitchens – ensures that students are not at risk."

"The Boston School Department deserves credit for participating in this voluntary project and being responsive as this effort has moved forward,"added Robert W. Varney, regional administrator of EPA's New England Office. "Whether it's improving air quality or reducing potential lead risks, there can be no compromising when it comes to protecting children's health."

EPA collected kitchen water samples last summer from 28 school kitchens, including the school department's Central Kitchen. The samples were colleted at the sinks used to wash and prepare foods and the kettles used for cooking. Samples were collected after water had been stagnant for eight to 18 hours. The longer water remains in contact with the pipes and fixtures, the greater the potential for lead to leach into the water. That's why first-flush samples are more apt to contain higher levels of lead.

Of the 28 school kitchen sampled, the sinks in all but two schools were below the agency's recommended action level limit – 20 parts per billion – on the first sample or the second sample. Second samples were collected after water was left running for 30 seconds. In the two schools where both the first and second samples exceeded the action level limit – the Gavin Middle School in South Boston and Dearborn Elementary School in Roxbury – the School Department has done additional sampling to determine if the samples were anomalies or if longer flushing is required. The School Department has since implemented a longer flushing time requirement – five minutes – at the Gavin Middle School.

Nineteen of the 28 school kitchens, including the Central Kitchen, have cooking kettles. At one of the 19 locations, Charlestown High School, water samples were above the 20 ppb action limit. The School Department re-sampled this location and determined that allowing the water to run for one minute before filling the kettle drops the lead level below the action limit. EPA was unable to sample all of the Central Kitchen's kettles using the appropriate protocols. The School Department has since re-sampled the Central Kitchen and determined that when water runs for five minutes before filling the kettle, the water is below the action limit.

Between November 2003 and January 2004, the School Department collected water samples at 10 additional schools with on-site cooking facilities. First-draw water samples at three of the schools had lead levels above the 20 ppb action limit. The samples did not exceed the action limit, however, after flushing the water. The three schools are now complying with the school-wide policy requiring at least a one-minute manual flush each day in kitchens that prepare food.

The partnership is continuing to address lead in drinking water in schools with two additional actions. The partnership sent a letter this week to 68 private schools in the Boston area. The letter discusses sampling their school for lead in drinking water and requests sampling results. In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection will be sending a letter to all private and public schools in the Commonwealth in mid-April regarding lead in drinking water in schools.

"School administrators need to look comprehensively at all facets of their school environments," Varney said. "Many tools and resources are available, including our Tools for Schools indoor air quality program, that will help school officials understand school conditions and build a pathway for safe and healthy schools for all children."

Related Information:
Lead in Drinking Water
Drinking Water