BOSTON >> On the heels of reports of high lead levels in the drinking water at some Boston schools and with the water crisis in Flint, Mich., continuing to unfold, the state launched a new effort Tuesday to make sure every school in Massachusetts can test its water for the presence of lead.
The Massachusetts Clean Water Trust's board of trustees voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to provide $2 million from its administrative expense fund to pay for a new Department of Environmental Protection initiative to ensure that school districts can sample the taps and fountains in their schools.
"This allows us to provide technical assistance, practical on-the-ground assistance, it helps us help the schools that need our help to sample, to get real-time results back and to develop plans for addressing any issues," said DEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg, who is also a member of the Clean Water Trust Board.
The funding is expected to enable as many as 1,750 schools to design and execute a water testing program, DEP said, and Tuesday's vote will allow them to get the program up and running this spring.
"A problem has been identified, collaborative work has happened very quickly and we anticipate getting this analysis done before the school year is over," Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, who chairs both the Clean Water Trust and the School Building Authority, said. "It is government being proactive and responsive to the needs of the people, which you don't always hear about but you can see happening right here today."
Suuberg said school districts will be able to request the state's help in sampling its water within about a week. And although lead is the contaminant of greatest concern, it won't be the only one tested for.
"When we're looking for lead, we're also looking for copper at the same time in our sampling," the commissioner said. "It gives us a little more information about water quality and it does not really change the work plan."
In 1991, DEP began implementing the federal EPA's Lead and Copper Rule to regulate lead and copper levels in drinking water. The rule applies to about 800 water systems in Massachusetts, according to the Clean Water Trust.
The Lead and Copper Rule does not establish a maximum contaminant level for lead, but instead sets an "action level" that, if exceeded, triggers additional testing, education and treatment to reduce lead concentration in the drinking water, according to DEP. The action level is set at 0.015 milligrams per liter, or 15 parts per billion.
Of the roughly 760 public water systems tested in the second half of 2015, 21 returned samples with lead amounts above the action level, according to testing results made available by DEP.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, exposure to lead can cause "behavior problems and learning disabilities in young children and can also affect the health of adults."
Though Goldberg and DEP officials said there is no reason to believe the testing will reveal significant lead issues in Massachusetts, Goldberg said the results could trigger the Legislature's involvement in addressing the issue of lead contaminated drinking water.
"I think the more and more information that we get, this may be a beginning," she said. "We may need to look at legislation in the future to deal with more of these issues, depending on the kind of information we receive."
State regulations already require every public water system to collect samples from at least two sources in a school and daycare facility selected on a rotating basis, according to DEP. The frequency of those tests could be anywhere from a few months to a few years, Suuberg said, depending on previous test results.
Last month, spurred by the drinking the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority Board approved a program to provide interest-free loans to fully replace thousands of aging, lead service water lines throughout its eastern Massachusetts service area.
According to the MWRA, its system has been below the lead action level since 2004 due to water supply protection efforts and a corrosion control program launched in 1996. But some communities have exceeded the level, according to the authority, and many homes still have lead service lines.
The MWRA estimates indicate that as many as 28,000 — or 5.6 percent of the total 500,000 service lines — contain lead, the News Service reported last month. The estimated average cost to fully replace a lead service is between $3,000 and $5,000 and the loans provided by the MWRA would be paid back over 10 years.