The lead poisoning crisis gripping Flint, Michigan, is focusing attention on school systems across the country – including dozens in Maine – that have experienced high levels of the dangerous metal in drinking water supplies.

An investigative report by USA Today identified roughly 350 schools and day care facilities served by their own water supplies where lead levels exceeded federal standards at least once between 2012 and 2015. But that is believed to be a fraction of the total number because federal regulations only require regular lead testing for schools or child care facilities with their own water supplies. Schools served by municipal water systems don’t have to test their water.

In Maine, the newspaper reported that 44 samples in 26 schools or day care facilities reported elevated lead levels higher than the 15 parts per billion “action level” designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That was the highest number of samples in any state, a fact likely attributable to the percentage of rural school systems using wells, the age of schools in Maine, as well as the corrosive nature of groundwater in some areas of the state.

Schools or day care facilities with results above the 15 parts per billion level must work with the state to correct the issue.

“Schools are very, very responsive,” said Nancy Beardsley, the head of the environmental health program at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “They can provide bottled water to the population, they can close off a faucet, they can replace water lines, they can flush water lines and, over the long-term, they can work on corrosion control.”

NINE SITES WORKING ON MITIGATION

In Maine, 285 schools and daycare facilities are required to test for lead at least once every three years because they obtain their water from local wells.

There are currently nine school sites in Maine that are working with the state to address elevated lead levels in their water systems, according to the Maine Drinking Water Program operated by the Maine CDC. Those are: Coastal Christian School in Waldoboro, Dedham Elementary School, First United Pentacostal Church in Augusta, Little Tykes II Child Care in Standish, MSAD 52 Alternative/Administrative School in Turner, Palmyra Community Center, RSU 12 Somerville Elementary School, RSU 13 Gilford Butler School in South Thomaston and Standish Baptist Church.

Although health officials have long warned of dangers of lead poisoning, the issue has been thrust into the public spotlight by the saga playing out in Flint. Residents there are grappling with a public health crisis created by the decision to switch to a cheaper but more corrosive water source that caused lead to seep from the city’s pipes into the water supply.

Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can cause learning and developmental disabilities, behavioral problems and a host of physical ailments.

In Maine, lead poisoning is often associated with older houses filled with lead paint or leaded pipes. The state requires all children on the MaineCare program to be tested for lead at the ages of 1 and 2 and requires screenings for all other children at the same ages unless an assessment determines they are at low risk of exposure.

The state has seen the number of children with elevated lead levels in their blood decline from 210, or 1.5 percent of those screened, in 2003, to 79, or 0.6 percent of those tested, in 2013, the last year for which figures were available. But those screenings stop at about the same time that children are beginning school.

Meanwhile, the events in Flint have raised awareness about lead exposure from other sources as well, Beardsley said.

A finding of lead levels above 15 parts per billion sets in motion a series of events and obligations on the school’s part.

Schools must notify staff and family members about the findings and provide “public education” about lead. Further tests are then done on the water to help determine a corrosion control plan because most lead in drinking water comes from the heavy metal seeping out of old pipes, faucet fixtures or lead-based soldering.

Finally, schools must execute their plan to correct the problem, whether by simply shutting off problematic water fountains or by undertaking a costly replacement of the piping system. Maine Drinking Water Program representatives work with schools to identify the lowest-cost and lowest-maintenance solutions that will bring the water supplies back into compliance, program director Roger Crouse said.

Schools must then test the water every six months until two consecutive tests come back with lead below the 15 parts per billion “action level” established by the EPA. Once that’s achieved, the water is tested annually for three years.

Albion Elementary School, located in a rural part of Kennebec County just east of Waterville, was forced to go through that process when a lead test several years ago turned up a sample with 337 parts per billion – 322 parts per billion above the “action level” established by the EPA.

“We sent letters home and we provided bottled water and also supplied it to the kitchen” for cafeteria food, said Cheryl Brackett, operations director for MSAD 49, which includes the communities of Fairfield, Albion, Benton and Clinton.

The district replaced three water fountains, 24 faucets and 48 hot/cold water valves during the school break period in February 2014. By later that year, the lead levels had dropped to 6.5 parts per billion.

“It seemed to do the trick,” Brackett said.

WATERBORO CRISIS RESOLVED

MSAD 57 in the York County town of Waterboro had four schools with elevated lead levels during the 2012-15 period, including a school that registered a 635 parts per billion level in one sample. While a district official didn’t return a phone call on Friday, Crouse with the Maine Drinking Water Program said the state worked with the school district and the town to connect to the municipal water system. As part of that agreement, Waterboro’s municipal water system must conduct some of its regular lead-level tests inside the schools.

However, that arrangement points to what observers say is a crucial flaw in the nation’s monitoring system: only schools or day care facilities that have their own water supplies are required to test regularly for lead. While municipal water systems must periodically measure lead content, they are not required to take those measurements inside schools, where lead can leach from old pipes or fixtures into the water.

According to the USA Today report, roughly 90,000 schools and 500,000 childcare facilities nationwide are not required to test for lead in their water because they are connected to municipal water supplies.

“That is a gap in the regulations,” Crouse said. “There isn’t a state or federal mandate that all of the schools served by municipal water are tested with any frequency, so there is a risk there.”

But Crouse added that municipalities typically test their water samples in numerous homes of different ages in order to gauge the water’s corrosive effects in different types of plumbing systems.

“So we can feel confident there is some risk redundancy going on because these municipalities are testing in a variety of homes for lead,” Crouse said.