Today’s headlines trumpet that the Seattle Public Schools have “severe” lead contamination in their drinking water. The Seattle Post Intelligencer summarizes:

Of the 88 schools for which the [school] district has released results, 70 include at least one [drinking] fountain with water showing lead levels above the standard of 20 parts per billion set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. At 19 schools, more than half the fountains tested exceeded the limit.

Curious, I checked the lead levels for the Salmon Bay School, where my wife is a substitute teacher, and each of my three children has attended. Sure enough: there are high levels of lead in many of drinking fountains, including the ones in the day care, the kitchen, and the nurse’s office.

Fortunately, for as long as my kids have gone there, a volunteer from the parents’ group (my friend Armin) has trucked in bottled water for the classrooms. A few kids may drink from the fountains, but most don’t. Still, the principle is disturbing: a place in which school drinking fountains pump out water laced with neurotoxins is a place not yet acting on its core values.

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  • Lead is a persistent bioaccumulative toxin, not unlike those monitored by the Cascadia Scorecard. Its health effects have been understood for decades-hence the phase out of leaded gasoline and paint begun in the United States three decades ago.

    The PI summarizes the health impacts of lead this way:

    It is likely that lead may be a factor in attention disorders, juvenile delinquency, violent criminal behavior, drug abuse, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, learning disabilities like dyslexia and possibly major psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. Although the case is not conclusive, many scientists believe lead exposure is a significant cause of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

    Two closing points:

    1.Seattle, like most of the Cascadia region, has been in the throes of one round of school improvement effort after another since, well, at least since I enrolled in first grade in 1970. (I shudder to think how much lead I drank in those days. I remember my teacher marching us to the drinking fountain where we lined up and drank. Again and again, she reminded us not to let our lips touch the fountain itself: “it’s covered with germs.” Little did she know, she was filling our your bodies with a brain poison.) How tragically ironic that all the better-education reforms implemented have been silently eroded by lead in the tap water.

    2.The widespread use of lead in plumbing solder for years has brought immense costs to the current generation. This enormous legacy might have been avoided, if we had obeyed the precautionary principle. The principle–“look before you leap”–is that no substance should be used widely in consumer goods until it has proved safe for health and the environment. North Americans observe this principle carefully for new medicines and food additives (consider how hard pharmaceutical companies work to win FDA approval), but not for industrial chemicals. And so, again and again, we find out about hazards when the cost of avoiding them is astronomical. Asbestos, PCBs, and lead are in hundreds of thousands of buildings and industrial sites around Cascadia. Toxic flame retardants literally upholster our living spaces.

    Sometimes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of school reform.