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New statewide study shows that lead is common in tap water at child care facilities across North Carolina

The Clean Water for Carolina KidsTM program team tested drinking and cooking taps at more than 4,000 child care facilities in the state — the largest peer-reviewed dataset in the U.S. examining the issue

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — A new study of more than 4,000 child care facilities in North Carolina has found that 56% of facilities contain at least one tap with lead levels exceeding 1 part per billion (ppb), the American Academy of Pediatrics reference level, while 12% have at least one tap with levels exceeding North Carolina’s hazard level of 10 ppb.

Conducted by researchers at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, the study represents the largest peer reviewed dataset in the U.S. showing that children are at risk of exposure to lead from tap water while in child care.

“In early childhood, even low-level lead exposures can result in irreversible developmental deficits, IQ loss, and behavioral issues,” said Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, director of environmental health and water quality at RTI and the Clean Water for Carolina KidsTM program director. “Although plans to modernize America’s aging water infrastructure are in progress, it is critical that we take actionable steps today to prevent childhood exposure to lead. Our findings show that we still need to do more to eliminate water-related lead risks across North Carolina.”

Child care facilities using well water (i.e., not connected to a public community water system) had approximately three times the odds of at least one tap exceeding 10 ppb, the study found. Facilities built before 1988 and Head Start facilities, which are federally funded programs free to low-income families, also had significantly higher odds of containing drinking water sources with elevated lead levels.

The study also found that drinking water sources in the same facility often had significant variation in lead levels, showing the importance of testing for lead at every tap used for drinking and cooking.

“Testing is the first step to identifying lead exposure risks,” said Riley Mulhern, Ph.D., a research environmental engineer at RTI. “Child care facilities should use cold tap water for formula preparation, designate lead-free taps for drinking and cooking, regularly flush water, install and maintain filters that are certified to remove lead, and replace faucet fixtures.”

The research was made possible through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation grant in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Findings were published in the American Journal of Public Health’s special issue "Ubiquitous Lead."

Read the full study

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