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Innovative NC Partnership Earns Harvard-based Award

The Clean Water for Carolina Kids program was the 2020 winner of the Harvard-based Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership. The program, which protects children and infants from exposure to lead from drinking water at child care centers and schools, is run through a unique partnership formed by Research Triangle International (RTI), NC Child, the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, and the North Carolina Division of Public Health.

The prestigious Roy Family Award is presented every two years to an outstanding cross-sector partnership project that enhances environmental quality through novel and creative approaches. This year’s winning project leveraged the combined strengths of each of the partners – RTI’s nonprofit research, NC Child’s community advocacy, Duke’s legal expertise, and the reach and influence of a state’s public health agency – to make a critical advancement in children’s health in NC.

The Clean Water for Carolina Kids partnership was formed to address early childhood exposure to lead from drinking and cooking water. Lead poisoning poses a serious risk for children. Even a small amount of lead may cause irreparable damage to a child’s brain and cognitive abilities. Research suggests that lead poisoning is also linked to ADHD in children.

A 2017 RTI study piloted a novel testing approach at child care centers and elementary schools with pre-kindergarten Head Start programs. Lead was detected above 1 μg/L in 63% of centers, and 97% of centers had at least one tap with detectable lead.

Given the study findings and the proven feasibility of the testing approach, the partnership evaluated legal and regulatory options for statewide testing with input from stakeholders. In fall 2019, a new statewide rule was adopted that requires all licensed child care centers to test for and remove lead in water used for drinking or food preparation. It is the first-of-its-kind lead in water testing program nationally to make large scale, yet scientifically robust testing feasible while empowering child care centers and schools to participate as citizen scientists.

Henry Lee, Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program, which coordinates the award, said that not only will the Clean Water for Carolina Kids partnership protect hundreds of thousands of children in North Carolina, it provides a clear and replicable model for other states and regions.

By focusing on prevention, the partnership indicates it will protect the 230,000 children ages six and under in child care centers and schools in North Carolina. A net economic benefit of $6.4 million in the first six years of the program’s implementation is expected from avoided health care costs and increased lifetime earnings.

Jenny Hoponick Redmon, Senior Environmental Health Scientist and Chemical Risk Assessment Specialist at RTI, also noted a link between COVID-19 and the program in the short term. As childcare facilities cautiously re-open in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she warns about the possibility of lead poisoning in daycare water. Water can become contaminated after sitting for long periods of time in pipes that contain lead. Because many daycare facilities have been shut down during the pandemic and no taps have been running, it’s possible that water has been absorbing concerning amounts of the heavy metal.

Redmon recommends that facilities coming back online should open up all their taps and letting the water run to eliminate stagnated water and reduce the likelihood that children will get an elevated lead exposure upon their return.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency encourage families and authorities to take action against lead poisoning by testing children, water, and homes regularly.