Nearly 3 in 4 Colorado kids have detectable levels of lead in their bloodstream, according to a peer-reviewed study published in September.
The September analysis — published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics — found that nationwide, slightly more than half of children tested positive for lead, making Colorado’s rate above average.
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Some state lawmakers and public health advocates want to address Colorado’s lead problem by installing water filters in every K-12 public and charter school in the state. They plan to introduce a bill that would leverage federal funds to pay for the water filter installation.
Colorado People’s Alliance, a racial justice organization with offices in Denver and Aurora, and Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental advocacy group, are backing the bill, which has yet to be officially introduced. Sponsors include three Democrats: Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora along with Reps. Emily Sirota of Denver and Barbara McLachlan of Durango.
“Lead is a problem in Colorado schools,” said Cori Bell, an attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council who advocates for healthy and affordable water. Bell spoke during a virtual news conference Monday to announce the upcoming bill.
“Schools and child care centers may have older plumbing materials, such as pipes and faucets, which are more likely to contain high levels of lead,” Bell continued. “There are so many times when pipes at schools sit unused. Think about the weekends, school breaks and summer vacation. During these times, lead can dissolve in the water that’s sitting in the pipes. No one would hand a child a lead straw for their glass, so why would we allow lead contamination in school drinking water?”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that exposure to lead can cause serious health effects for children, including brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech problems.
Lead exposure is most common among children who live in communities with older housing and high poverty rates, according to the September study, which also found higher-than-average lead exposure in children from predominantly Black and Hispanic ZIP codes.
Rachel Lehman, a member of Colorado People’s Alliance, said she didn’t trust the drinking water in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood where her family lives. She buys water filters for her home once a month, and her daughter lugs water from home in a Hydro Flask when she goes to class.
“Water is life,” Lehman said during the news conference. “I don’t see how this is a political issue at all, and I urge the state of Colorado to do some kind of action in this matter to support clean drinking water for all of our children.”
Dr. PJ Parmar, whose clinic serves refugees in the East Colfax neighborhood, pointed out the difficulty of testing individual kids for lead.
“If anyone has tried to test the blood of a 1- or 2-year-old, it’s impractical,” Parmar said. But his clients would be on board with the broader filter proposal, he said, because “many of them come from places where they don’t trust the drinking water anyway.”
Under the upcoming bill, the $26.7 million filter installation cost would be paid for using existing federal funds.
Advocates say President Joe Biden’s social spending plan, which remains stalled in the U.S. Senate, would cover annual filter maintenance costs totaling $12.7 million for Colorado schools. But if Congress doesn’t pass the social spending plan, or some version of it, it’s unclear who would pay for maintenance. State funding for K-12 education already falls more than $500 million short of the amount that lawmakers are required to pay school districts under a formula in state law.
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