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Environment Montana Research & Policy Center
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The Billings Gazette
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The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A survey of school districts around the country finds that less than half test their water for lead, and among those that do more than a third detected elevated levels of the toxin, according to a federal report released Tuesday.

That number could be even lower in Montana, where the large majority of schools are not required to test for lead in water. There's no statewide database showing which schools test.

The report, released by the Government Accountability Office, is based on a survey of 549 school districts across the United States. It estimates that 41 percent of school districts, serving 12 million students, did not test for lead in the water in 2016 and 2017.

Lead can cause brain damage and learning disabilities in children.

Of the 43 percent that did test for lead, about 37 percent reported elevated levels. Sixteen percent of schools said they did not know whether they test for lead, the report says.

report from Environment Montana, an environmental advocacy group, found that 104 mostly rural schools in Montana are required to test for lead because they serve as their own water utility.

Some districts, like Billings, Great Falls, Bozeman and Missoula do their own voluntary testing, the report found.

Billings has conducted two district-wide rounds of testing. While many schools had some lead readings, all levels were below the Environmental Protection Agency’s action threshold of 15 parts per billion.

Billings city water supply, which schools draw from, was tested dozens of times between 2015 and 2017 as part of state compliance. Testing showed a lead level of 5 and 6 ppb.

Exposure can vary based on individual fixtures within a larger water system. In Missoula County, Seeley-Swan High School measured 28 ppb. The school district replaced four water fixtures with high lead content and installed a filter. A consultant found a backed-up abandoned water line near the school's water pipe that could have been a source of contamination.

No other Missoula County school tested above 15 ppb.

A 2005 memorandum signed by the EPA, the Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides guidance to schools, including a testing protocol and suggestions for disseminating results, educating the school community about the risks and health effects of exposure and what actions should be taken to correct the problem.

But there are still major information gaps, the report says, and no federal law that requires schools to test for lead.

“Without information on key topics, such as a recommended schedule for lead testing, how to remediate elevated lead levels, and information associated with testing and remediation costs school districts are at risk of making misinformed decisions regarding their lead testing and remediation efforts,” the report says.

More than half of the schools that didn’t test for lead said they didn’t identify a need for testing, and noted that they’re not required to do so.

The report makes seven recommendations that include updating existing guidance to help schools choose a level that would trigger remediation, increasing collaboration between agencies and improving efforts to communicate to school districts the importance of lead testing and information about what actions to take if lead is detected.

The EPA agreed with the report’s recommendations, and the Education Department in its response agreed to improve its website to make information about lead testing more accessible.

Billings Gazette reporter Matt Hoffman contributed to this story.