Testing done in more than 100 schools across the state showed elevated levels of lead in the drinking water, including nearly two dozen schools in Billings, according to state data obtained by Kaiser Health News.
A new rule implemented in 2020 by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) requires all Montana schools to check for lead in any sink or fountain that’s used for drinking or food prep every three years.
About half of all Montana schools have had their water tested by mid-February. One hundred ten of the 222 schools that turned in samples showed lead levels in water to be higher than 15 parts per billion, Kaiser Health reported.
“I guess one reason for why we did the sampling in the first place is we just didn’t know what the lead exposure was to drinking water in schools,” said Greg Montgomery, lead reduction in school drinking water rule manager from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), in an interview with MTN News.
Almost two dozen schools in Billings met that threshold, which required sinks and water fountains to be immediately shut off once the results were known.
Michelle Herzog has kids who attend two of those Billings schools.
“Lead levels at 15ppb in some of those cases. I mean you’re not supposed to be above 1ppb, so having them at 15 in some of those areas, that’s concerning especially since lead affects kiddos,” Herzog said.
Herzog didn’t learn of those high levels until Friday, March 4, when MTN News contacted her. Montana’s rule requires schools to publicly post results but doesn’t require them to notify parents if their kids have been exposed.
“It would be nice to hear something from the schools and just knowing what they’re going to do to fix the problem. And how it is going to affect the kids and what they’re able to drink, where they’re able to drink from, and where the money's coming from,” Herzog said.
MTN News reached out to Billings Schools Superintendent Greg Upham for an interview, but he said he was not immediately available.
Lead is a toxic metal that’s known to cause organ and nervous system damage. It’s especially harmful to children which can cause slow development as well as learning, speech, and behavioral problems.
“In the beginning, we thought the older schools would have a problem. That’s not necessarily true,” Montgomery said.
The problem could just lie in a particular school’s water quality.
The highest results in the state came from Billings Skyview High School, where a sink theater control room tested at 7,800 ppb. Federal environmental regulators consider these results to be hazardous waste.
“Some of the other high results at Billings schools and at Skyview, is not necessarily representative of what kids are drinking,” Montgomery said.
The question Herzog and others now wonder is what schools will do to address the problem.
“So it really depends on the school, and what the school decides to do, and what those levels are,” said Montgomery.
Around 300 Montana schools have yet to submit samples.