As the U.S. taste for bottled water grows, environmentalists have been trying to sell people on tap water.
Bottled water is a drain on the environment -- the U.S. public goes through about 50 billion water bottles a year, and most of those plastic containers are not recycled.
But switching to tap water could be a bad idea in some schools where the risk of lead contamination from old pipes -- known to affect physical and mental development -- is high, particularly in large urban areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
A nationwide investigation showed that the drinking water in schools in 27 states is contaminated with lead and other toxic substances from lead-soldered pipes installed before 1985.
In 2007, Baltimore City public schools switched their entire system to bottled water after a study of 84 randomly selected water fountains found 10 with lead levels high than the EPA's cutoff of 20 parts per billion.
The school district decided it would be cheaper to provide bottled water than testing and remediation efforts.
Kids need access to healthy beverages when they’re at school, and the best choice -- far better than soda, sports drinks and even fruit juice -- is water. But the water must be pure in order for it to be healthy.
Unfortunately, the tap water that comes out of the drinking fountains at many U.S. schools is not safe. The problem is two-fold:
- Older schools may contain lead-soldered pipes that allow the metal to flake into water supplies or result in lead-contaminated water, especially when the water sits over weekends and holidays.
- Schools that get their water from public supplies do not have to test for toxins, which means they may contain harmful levels of contaminants and no one would know.
Water from Schools in All 50 States May be Unsafe
Last year the Associated Press analyzed data from the Environmental Protection Agency on school drinking water and what they found was unsettling, to say the least.
Thousands of schools in the United States -- in rural areas and big cities, in both public and private schools -- had drinking water contaminated with lead, pesticides and other toxins. In all, about 100 school districts and 2,250 schools had water that violated federal water safety standards, including one out of five schools with well water.
Among the most pervasive contaminants detected were coliform bacteria, lead, copper, arsenic and nitrates.
Contaminated drinking water is a reality for many communities across the United States, but the risks become even more apparent when you’re dealing with water being supplied to children from a location that is supposed to be safe and protected: their school.
Environmental toxins, including those in drinking water, pose an extra risk to kids, as well. Children not only drink more water for their size than adults do, but they’re also more vulnerable to damage from the toxins contained therein.
Serious Health Risks to Children Who Drink Contaminated Water
Chronic high levels of lead is associated with decreased intelligence and neurological impairment in children -- including the potential of permanent brain damage if they’re exposed to high levels at an early age.
Making the possibility of lead poisoning even worse are the studies showing that fluoridated water supplies (which include most public supplies in the U.S.) can increase children's absorption of lead, and, when lead is introduced into your body in sufficient quantities, it displaces zinc, which also disrupts brain cell growth.
Arsenic, another common contaminant in school drinking water, has been linked to an increased risk of cancer of your bladder, lungs, liver and other organs. Arsenic can also damage chromosomes, which house the genetic material inside the cells of your body, and lead to reduced intelligence in children.
It's believed the side effects from arsenic exposure in drinking water typically take years to develop. Much of it depends on the concentration of arsenic to which you or your children are exposed. Most arsenic leaves your body within three days of exposure, but the arsenic that remains is stored in your brain, bones and tissue and continues to do serious damage.
Further, pesticides, which are also showing up in school water supplies, are especially dangerous to children because they are still developing, and may not be able to fully remove pesticides from their body.
Researchers are increasingly pointing to pesticide and herbicide contamination as one cause for the many reported cases of autism, as well as attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Additionally, other researchers are finding links between pesticide exposure and decreased cognitive abilities, and aggression in children.
Your nervous system, your immune system, and your endocrine (hormone) system are all closely related and in constant communication with each other, so when any one of the three systems is damaged or degraded, the other two may be adversely affected as well.
Pesticides and herbicides can adversely affect your child’s thyroid hormones, too. This is important, as irritability and aggressive behavior are linked to your thyroid hormone levels. Furthermore, some studies have shown that attention deficit and/or hyperactivity disorders in children are linked to changes in their levels of thyroid hormone.
While some of the damage of these toxins may be apparent immediately, other harm may not appear until years later.
Is Bottled Water the Right Solution?
Acknowledging the problems with water safety, some school districts are turning to bottled water as a solution. In Baltimore City public schools, for instance, National Geographic reported that they made the switch after detected 10 drinking fountains with lead levels higher than the EPA’s safe limit. They decided it would be cheaper to provide kids with bottled water than to go through testing and remediation at their schools.
But while bottled water may give kids a quick alternative to drinking fountains, it is a shortsighted solution. First, bottled water is a disaster for the environment. National Geographic cited one statistic that the U.S. public goes through 50 billion water bottles every year … and most of those are never recycled!
Plus, bottled water is of questionable purity as well. In fact, about 40 percent of bottled water IS regular tap water, which may or may not have received any additional treatment. So it’s arguable whether it’s really safer for kids.
Plus, when you take into account the health hazards imparted by the chemicals leaching out of the plastic bottle itself, then bottled water really doesn’t make sense, no matter whether your child drinks it at school or at home.
A Safe Option for Kids
I recommend teaching your child to avoid the drinking fountain at school, as there’s no telling what types of contaminants could be in the water. As an aside, school drinking fountains are also veritable Petri dishes, and studies have found they may contain anywhere from 62,000 to 2.7 million bacteria per square inch of the spigot.
So if you tell your child not to use the drinking fountain, where should their water come from?
The best alternative to having pure water that is also safe for the environment is to use a high-quality filter for your home.
Many schools now allow children to bring a water bottle to school with them, so I recommend sending your child to school with a day’s supply of this filtered water from your home -- in a safe, non-toxic bottle -- so he or she has plenty of pure water to sip on throughout the day.