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I-Team: Less than half of schools use free kit to test water for lead

Nearly one year after the state started offering free lead testing kits to schools, the CBS 13 I-Team discovers less than half have actually requested them. (WGME)

Nearly one year after the state started offering free lead testing kits to schools, the CBS 13 I-Team discovers less than half have actually requested them.

School is supposed to be a safe place for kids to learn and grow, but Maine's aging infrastructure can sometimes expose them to a danger they can't see, smell or taste.

"Obviously very concerning to everybody," said Brian Wedge, principal of Benton Elementary. "Students, parents, staff, faculty. It was a big deal."

It was lead at Benton Elementary last fall, more than 40 times the federal limit.

"It was in our kitchen, which is used for cooking and things like that, but also the faucets in the classrooms, the water fountains," Wedge said.

The toxin is harmful to children's health. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it can stunt their growth and cause behaviorial and learning problems.

"We shut down all the water in the school," said Wedge.

Weeks earlier, it was found in faucets and fountains at schools in Yarmouth.

"There hadn't been any water testing done in our schools for quite some time," said Superintendent, Andrew Dolloff.

Under federal rules and Maine law, only schools that maintain their own water supply are required to test and submit results to the state. Those like Benton and Yarmouth are off the hook because they get water from public utilities, which already have to collect samples, typically from homes.

"The water coming into a school is free of lead," explained Roger Crouse, director of the Drinking Water Program. "As it sits in the pipe, if it sits for a long period of time, or there's lots of lead in the school's internal plumbing, you may see elevated lead levels in the water test itself."

It breaks down like this: Out of 740 schools in maine, about 240 have their own supply. The other 500 use municipal water, meaning they don't have to test.

"Maine's groundwater is naturally fairly corrosive," said Crouse.

Last December, he said the state started offering free kits, encouraging schools to collect samples voluntarily.

"Flint, Michigan was something we talked about a lot," he said.

Nearly a year later, he said 180 out of the 500 schools have requested kits.

Crouse said he wasn't surprised by the number. "We know a number of utilities worked with their schools before we offered the free testing," he said.

Crouse said none of the results were sent to the state, so officials aren't sure who tested or what the results were.

He agreed that it's unclear how many schools haven't tested for lead.

"I think people are afraid of finding out what's happening in the water," said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth.

Millett is sponsoring a bill that would require testing in buildings older than 10 years, along with nursery schools, and then make results available to the public. When the bill is taken up this legislative session, she plans to drop the 10 year requirement and simply make it mandatory for all schools.

"It doesn't take a lot of work, it's not that expensive to check and I think for everybody's peace of mind, it's good to know that the water your children are drinking is fine," said Millett.

Wedge said he can't understand why a school wouldn't test.

"It's worth knowing so that we can address, it's not something we need to be afraid of finding out," he said.

The state originally had a May deadline for requesting those free testing kits, but officials said funds are still available, so they will continue to offer them.

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