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Kids at risk of lead contamination in federal child care, watchdog says

A General Services Administration watchdog warned that lead levels in federal child-care centers have not been properly tested since reopening after pandemic closures. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

An urgent internal watchdog notice to the government’s landlord warns that federal child-care centers might have contaminated water because officials “did not effectively test” for it.

The new “alert memorandum” issued by the General Services Administration’s (GSA) inspector general to the agency’s Public Building Service (PBS) commissioner, Nina M. Albert, described this “as an issue that warrants your immediate attention.”

“Without proper testing,” the alert added, the government “cannot ensure that children or staff at the child-care centers have access to safe drinking water.”

The warning comes after an earlier Government Accountability Office report warned that a Pentagon agency needs better oversight to ensure children in military families are properly screened, tested and treated for lead exposure.

GSA manages federal facilities, including leased properties. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the centers provided care in 92 independently operated centers for more than 7,000 children nationwide. Eighty-four of those closed during the pandemic and 74 have since reopened.

Prolonged closures can lead to water stagnation that “increases the risk of corrosion in the plumbing systems, which can trigger the release of lead and copper into the facility’s drinking water,” R. Nicholas Goco, an assistant inspector general, wrote in the memorandum. “It can also increase the risk of growth and spread of Legionella bacteria.”

Yet GSA “did not conduct water testing before reopening almost all of the child-care centers closed during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the alert said. In fact, 71 of the 74 that reopened weren’t tested first.

“While PBS has since tested the water in certain child-care centers, this testing was not comprehensive. As a result, PBS does not have assurance that children and staff at the child-care centers have access to safe drinking water,” the report noted.

An “alert” is issued “to direct agency management’s attention to pressing issues identified during the course of an audit or evaluation,” said Sarah S. Breen, communications director for the inspector general’s office. “We have an ongoing audit of drinking-water safety in federal buildings and plan to issue a full report once the audit is complete.”

There is no known safe level of lead in water, but the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” is 15 parts per billion (ppb). Regulations for GSA child-care centers “require remediation efforts if test results exceed the EPA’s action levels.”

After reopening child care centers, GSA tested water in 38 facilities and found contamination in three. The greatest contamination, by far, was in Union Park Plaza, in Lakewood, Colo., where the alert said “the testing found an elevated copper level of 8,280 ppb [more than six times the EPA’s action level] in one fixture and 2,490 ppb in another.” Children and others used the facility for 570 days without the water being tested, from a reopening in May 2020 to the lead and copper testing in December 2021.

At the IRS Service Center in Ogden, Utah, and the Richard Bolling Federal Building in Kansas City, Mo., the lead contamination levels ranged from 17.2 ppb to 24.4 ppb. Kansas City went without water testing for almost 16 months. It was about six months in Ogden.

The problem faucets in Kansas City and Ogden were cleaned, flushed and tested before returning to use. Two faucets in Lakewood were taken out of service.

But 33 other child-care centers still remain untested, the report found.

In response to the inspector general’s report, a GSA statement to The Washington Post said the PBS “has a policy of proactively conducting water testing at GSA child-care centers at least once every three years. In the months following the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, our efforts to ensure water quality went beyond regular testing requirements.” GSA acknowledged, however, that “PBS did not fully adhere to its once-every-three-years testing policy during the pandemic and some of the new flushing requirements that we proactively made were implemented after some child-care centers were already open.”

GSA’s answer directly to the inspector general’s office drew pushback.

Goco, the assistant inspector general, wrote in the report that PBS’s official reply to the findings “contain misleading and incomplete information” and that “PBS gives the misleading impression that it does not bear responsibility for water quality in its buildings.”

Criticism over the lack of government lead testing also have been raised about Pentagon inaction.

In July, the GAO said the Defense Health Agency (DHA) has guidelines for government and private facilities in which military children are cared for, but “DHA does not oversee facility providers’ adherence to these guidelines.”

The Defense Department offers health care to more than 9 million service members and their families.

DHA officials planned “to conduct oversight of pediatric lead screening, testing, treatment, and reporting of elevated blood lead levels,” the GAO report said, “however, DHA did not provide any documentation of these efforts or details such as a time frame for when this oversight will be implemented.”

The Pentagon expects military treatment facilities to follow the health agency’s pediatric lead guidelines, but DHA “currently does not have a process in place to oversee providers’ adherence to the guidelines,” GAO reported.

Responding to the GAO report, DHA told The Post the health agency “is actively improving oversight and adherence to lead screening and testing guidelines” by “developing an action plan” with timelines to meet GAO recommendations.

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