Ensuring students, teachers and staff have access to good water quality, especially for drinking water, is a crucial component of a healthy school. This article explores why water quality and access is important, and identifies three key issues many schools around the nation currently face. We also provide five measures schools can take to address these issues.
Water Is an Essential Building Block of Life
Access to water that is free of inorganic, organic, and biological contaminants is essential for maintaining optimal health. Humans are mostly made of water – in fact, water comprises over 50% of an adult’s body weight. However, water is vulnerable to pollution that can harm our health as well as the environment. These contaminants, especially in high doses, can be toxic and impair health and overall quality of life.
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) allows the EPA to set national health-based standards for drinking water to protect against water contamination. However, the EPA estimates that approximately 98,000 public schools (grades K-12) and 500,000 childcare facilities are not regulated under the SDWA. Testing drinking water quality is a voluntary decision, and many unregulated schools and childcare facilities may not be testing it.
Sources of Water Contamination
Even today, with our advanced treatment technologies, it is still challenging to ensure that everyone has access to water that is free of contaminants. For one thing, conventional water treatment systems do not always remove contaminants effectively. Furthermore, in addition to pollution from industry and agriculture, the treatment and distribution systems meant to keep drinking water safe can also be potential sources of contamination, as pollutants can be introduced through these water distribution infrastructures. Finally, because scientific knowledge concerning new water contaminants and safe exposure levels is always evolving, it is challenging for regulations to keep pace.
Americans Face Ongoing Water Challenges
Despite the fact that water quality in the U.S. is quite good compared to many other countries, there are still many risks for contamination. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. drinking water infrastructure a “D” grade in 2017, citing its aging and deteriorating infrastructure, and the EPA estimates that over $743 billion are needed for nationwide water infrastructure improvements. In fact, each year since 1982, up to 28% of Americans have been affected by water that is in violation of SDWA health-based water quality standards set by the EPA.
Common Quality and Access Issues in Schools
Lack of Access to Clean Drinking Water
Access to clean drinking water is crucial in helping students increase their water consumption and maintain hydration throughout the day. While important in maintaining good physical health, adequate hydration may also improve cognitive function in students. One study found that being dehydrated by just 2% (classified as mild to moderate dehydration) can impair performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills. Another study, conducted among students, aged 9-11 in South Italy, Sardina, found that 84% of students were in a state of mild dehydration at the beginning of the school day. As levels of dehydration increased, students’ short-term memory also decreased.
While the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires schools participating in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program to make free drinking water available to students during meal service, many schools still lack readily available, clean drinking water. Studies show that accessibility issues can arise due to an inadequate number or poor placement of drinking fountains, broken or poorly maintained water fountains, and poor water quality.
A 2016 study conducted in 59 middle schools and high schools in Massachusetts found that less than half of the schools met the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act requirement for free water access during lunch. Slightly more than half (59%) met the Massachusetts state plumbing code, which specifies the minimum number of water sources per a given number of students. While schools, on average, provided at least 1 water source per 75 students, within each school almost a third of these water sources were broken or appeared unclean.
Water pipes are often made from lead, which can leach into water if the pipes are corroded. Young children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure because the physical and behavioral effects of lead occur at lower exposure levels compared to adults. Low levels of lead exposure have been linked to behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, and anemia among children; in rare cases, exposure can also cause seizures, coma, and even death.
Based on available data from 12 states, a report conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Nutrition Policy Institute at the University of California found that 12% (57,152) of all water samples tested had lead concentrations at or above the states’ action level, and 44% (4,777) of schools tested had one or more water samples at or above the states’ action level.
Regular water use helps prevent water stagnation by bringing in new water, along with disinfectant substances. However, many school buildings are experiencing prolonged periods of low-to-no water use due to various reasons, including the Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns. Furthermore, most schools do not check or flush their water pipes regularly, which helps remove stagnant water from the interior pipes. Stagnant water can increase the risk for growth and spread of harmful bacteria, which may make the water supply unsafe to drink or use.
In August 2020, five schools in Ohio and four schools in Pennsylvania detected Legionella in their water supply. Legionella bacteria can cause Legionnaires disease — a type of severe pneumonia — if small water droplets containing the bacteria become aerosolized and are inhaled.
5 Ways to Improve Water Quality and Access in Schools
1. Regular Water Quality Testing
Conducting regular water quality testing is essential to ensuring students’ access to safe drinking water. Twenty-four U.S. states and the District of Columbia had lead testing programs for school drinking water as of 2018.
2. Regular Maintenance
Ensure that drinking water access points (such as water fountains) are well maintained and cleaned regularly. This helps to reduce possible bacterial contamination and also makes drinking water stations more appealing to students.
Filtration is one of the most effective treatment methods for mitigating water quality concerns. Different types of filters are designed for different types of contaminants. For example, activated carbon filters target chemicals, while kinetic degradation fluxion (KDF) filters help reduce dissolved metals. In addition, water filters differ in terms of their placement and can be installed either at point-of-entry (POE; meant to treat all the water that comes into the building) or point-of-use (POU; meant to treat water that comes out from a specific location). Water filters should be selected based on the specific water quality concerns in a given school.
4. Water Softening
“Hard water,” or water that contains excessive minerals such as calcium, can sometimes taste “off”. This can discourage children from drinking enough water. Water softeners that filter out these minerals can help improve the taste and appearance of water.
5. Improving Access
It is important to ensure that clean, free drinking water is readily available to students throughout the school. Every school has unique water accessibility needs, so administrators must assess the state, district, and school water policies related to water access in addition to their current school water environment. Schools can help improve water access by installing more water fountains, water coolers, water bottle refilling stations, and other clean drinking water sources. Students tend to drink more water when cups are provided, so schools may consider promoting refillable water bottles and offering cups for students who do not have refillable water bottles.
About the Expert
Regina Vaicekonyte is the Vice President of Health Sciences at Delos with her research focusing on the role various environmental and behavioral factors play in people’s physical and mental health and wellbeing. Currently, Regina’s work informs the evaluation, development and delivery of products and services for commercial, residential and hospitality sector.