The disturbing news flowing from Flint, Michigan, in 2015 riveted Molly Costanza-Robinson, both as a scientist and as a parent. The drinking water in Flint, a Rust Belt city fallen on hard times, had been found to contain lead. Lots of lead. In 2014, as a cost-saving measure, the city had switched to a new water source that was not properly treated with anticorrosives. Lead was leaching from pipes carrying tainted water to more than 100,000 citizens. With the water went the lead, and with the lead came the punishing health concerns that go with it.
As an environmental chemistry professor, Costanza-Robinson teaches and conducts research related to environmental pollution and environmental health. She is always on the lookout for ways to make visible to her students the invisible world of atoms and molecules. Seizing an opportunity to connect what was happening in real time in Flint to her classroom and lab, she began incorporating corrosion chemistry into her lectures and designed experiments using lead pipes with both treated and untreated water samples to see if students could reproduce the Flint results.
“I wanted my students to understand from a molecular perspective an issue that is having huge societal implications,” she says.
Costanza-Robinson was still curious. In Flint, the situation was extreme, and therefore atypical. The water’s toxicity was initially detected because of its off-color and bad taste and an increase in illnesses and issues such as hair loss and skin rashes. “Lead itself, however, cannot be seen or tasted directly, nor are its toxic effects immediately obvious,” she points out. “The quiet, incremental, and cumulative nature of lead as a neurotoxin is part of its danger.”
She wondered if lead contamination in drinking water posed a silent threat to communities much closer to home.
“There was a certain confluence of factors that were unique to Flint, but we have lead lines all over this country. We have corrosive water all over this country. We have people not funding infrastructure maintenance and improvements everywhere,” she says. “So the question became, is this also an issue in Vermont?”
Costanza-Robinson and her husband, Carl, moved to Middlebury 14 years ago and have since made strong connections in the community where they’ve raised their two children. Carl is co-owner of Frog Hollow Bikes, and the family enjoys cycling and hiking and other healthy activities the area has to offer. Both as a scientist and as a mom, Costanza-Robinson was especially interested in knowing how much lead, if any, lurked in the drinking water at local schools. She asked her contact at the Vermont Department of Health, and when she learned that the agency didn’t yet have answers, she determined that she and her students would help find them.
Lead is a naturally occurring metal commercially mined around the world. More than 80 percent of lead used in manufacturing goes into making batteries of all types, including automobile batteries—for both combustion engines and electric vehicles—and household batteries. The remainder is used for industrial paint pigments, roof flashing, and protecting against radiation in doctors’ and dentists’ offices, hospitals, and nuclear power plants.
When swallowed or inhaled, lead is not as benign. It can cause severe damage to the blood and kidneys and is a neurotoxin. In children, the neurotoxic effects are amplified and are known to cause behavioral problems, hearing loss, hyperactivity, and learning disabilities, and to result in a lower IQ. Children are more susceptible than adults to the effects of lead; their bodies, because they are still developing, absorb lead more readily.
Since 1978, lead has been banned in paint intended for residential use. In 1986, the federal government banned the use of lead in all plumbing parts, including pipes, solder, and fixtures. In 1995, Vermont banned lead in sinkers used for fishing lines. Also in 1995, the lead came out of gasoline.
Still, there was reason to be concerned about lead in the drinking water at schools, where children spend so many hours each week more than nine months of the year. According to a 2018 report by Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources and Department of Health, schools throughout the U.S. have found elevated lead levels in their schools since testing began in the wake of the public-health failure in Flint. The majority of the 1,000 schools tested to date in Massachusetts had elevated lead levels, 83 percent of schools in New York City had at least one tap with elevated lead results, and 66 percent of tested Denver public schools—the majority of which were built between 1950 and 1960—had elevated lead levels
The same report points out that many Vermont schools are likely to have at least small amounts of lead in their plumbing and plumbing fixtures. Until around the 1950s, lead pipes were used for some service lines and connections that carry water from street mains to buildings. Lead-based solder used to create a watertight seal between copper pipes was outlawed in 1988 but until 2010 could still legally contain up to 8 percent lead.
“We’re above where the CDC would like the state to be in terms of the fraction of children who have elevated blood lead,” says Costanza-Robinson, adding that the numbers reduced rapidly over a 10-year period between 1996 and 2006 when a lot of work was done to ensure homes were free of lead paint. But there were still 480 children under six years old who were poisoned by lead in Vermont in 2017.
“So my question is, Is water a part of that? Typically lead paint is going to cause a much higher exposure. But your body doesn’t care where lead comes from. So if it’s coming from the water, it’s just as problematic.”
When Costanza-Robinson called her contact at the Vermont Department of Health to ask what the state knew about lead levels in the schools’ drinking water, David Grass ’99, environmental surveillance chief, didn’t have an answer. But he added that the Flint tragedy had also gotten the attention of the Health Department, the Agency of Natural Resources, and the Agency of Education, and plans were under way to conduct a joint pilot study of 16 schools in a statewide effort to assess whether lead posed a threat.
Grass, who has a doctorate in climate science from Columbia University and has guest lectured at Middlebury, was eager to bring Costanza-Robinson’s team into the collaboration: “Early conversations with Molly were, ‘OK, what’s the role for Middlebury in this project?’”
Costanza-Robinson first needed to clear her research with the Addison Central School District, which oversees nine schools in and around Middlebury. Breaking the ice was easy. The school district’s superintendent, Peter Burrows, is a personal friend.
He was initially surprised by the request. “I think everybody in the schools made an assumption that everything was fine,” Burrows says. Costanza-Robinson’s proposal to methodically test the water within all nine buildings challenged that complacency, and he immediately abandoned the assumption. “As superintendent, you want to do what’s right, do the research, and bring clarity.”
I wanted my students to understand from a molecular perspective an issue that is having huge societal implications."
New to the public arena, Costanza-Robinson quickly learned that while Burrows was supportive, there were other concerns that needed to be addressed. For example, how and when should the community be notified: before the testing began, or only if the results turned up problems? Grass and the Health Department provided guidance on community outreach, recommending that the district be transparent from the outset and supplying templated letters for communications.
“These are considerations that were brand-new to me,” Costanza-Robinson says.
Grass also conferred with the Robinson Lab lead team on details of their project’s design, making sure the methodology was the same so that the results would be publicly useful.
As it turned out, Grass says, the state moved more slowly, and Costanza-Robinson and her students got started first.
“The work that Middlebury did was totally their own. They took what we gave them and really ran with it. They did some excellent work and produced excellent reports that really educated all of us about what was going on,” says Grass. “They ended up being a trailblazer.”
The Robinson Lab lead team’s study of nine schools took time. From 2016 to 2019, six students got deeply involved during various stages as part of their course work. In addition, two classes of 27 students combined helped with a single school as part of a class project.
Their roles varied. Some developed the methods for testing with the instrumentation; others went into the schools to collect the water and analyzed the samples back at the campus lab.
It was a taxing, methodical process. Testing school drinking water requires two slightly different methods of drawing samples. Properly conducted, the test will reveal if lead levels are high and whether the lead is coming from pipes deep in the plumbing system or from the outlets that deliver the water, such as sink faucets, drinking fountains, kitchen sprayers, showers, bottle fillers, and even ice machines.
Middlebury Union High School alone had 122 water outlets. Some of the schools in the supervisory district, like Bridport, Shoreham, and Ripton, required long drives from campus in order to draw the samples. Each school had dozens of outlets that could possibly be delivering water for drinking or eating.
Water that sits in lead pipes and plumbing fixtures for longer periods of time will contain higher levels of lead. As a result, lead levels in a school’s drinking water may be particularly high after weekends and vacations. So, to get an accurate sample of the water that is typically consumed, the Robinson Lab lead team avoided collecting samples on Mondays, after holidays, or during summer vacations. Professor and students arrived around 6:30 a.m. at each of the schools in order to take the “first-draw” sample as soon as the water emerged from each outlet, and the second “flush” sample after it had run for a while. The students created detailed digital floor plans of each school, mapping the location of each outlet tested.
“Everybody had Flint on their minds, and it was really cool to look into this issue close to home,” recalls Nina Buzby ’17, an environmental chemistry major who helped launch the study for her senior research project. She remembers rising unusually early in order to get to schools before dawn to collect the first-draw sample, and how Costanza-Robinson sometimes made the earliness of the hour more palatable with a breakfast outing afterward. “Most of my interest in science is coming at it from an applied perspective. I find the public health aspect really interesting.”
As they collected data, the Robinson Lab lead team reported their results to the superintendent, facilities managers, and the state Health Department. Results were also shared widely with the Addison County Schools community via school newsletters and websites. Costanza-Robinson published reports on her website and shared them on Facebook, encouraging others to do the same. She made a presentation to the school board partway through to explain her progress and the results. The good news: there was no Flint-like problem with lead leaching from pipes deep inside the infrastructure. The bad news was that each of the nine schools had at least one outlet that delivered water with elevated lead levels. At one school, more than half its outlets were flagged as a problem. It was Mary Hogan Elementary School in Middlebury, the school Molly Costanza-Robinson’s children attended.
Throughout the process, Costanza-Robinson did her best to focus on the data and maintain her composure as an impartial scientist—despite her parental concerns. She says, “I was always questioning, making sure I was being objective, and it wasn’t just like mama bear protecting her kids.”
So how much lead in water is too much? It depends on who is answering the question.
The Environmental Protection Agency has set 15 parts per billion (ppb) as a regulatory lead level that water suppliers must not exceed in 90 percent of their users’ water. “It doesn’t pertain to schools per se and is not a safety level,” Costanza-Robinson points out. “It’s simply a level that, if it occurs too frequently, forces a municipal water supplier to do something to fix it.”
The health-based recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is much lower: taps in schools should not exceed water lead concentrations of more than 1 ppb.
Costanza-Robinson says the lower, the better. “Most Americans have over 100 chemicals that are not intended to be in their body. Some of them aren’t doing anything. Some of them are probably carcinogenic. Some of them are probably affecting our hormones,” she says. “We know that no amount of lead in our bodies is healthy.”
The state’s pilot study mirrored the Robinson Lab lead team’s results in showing that most schools had multiple outlets with lead levels higher than 1 ppb and many had outlets with lead levels that exceeded 15 ppb. In light of these results, two Vermont state senators introduced a bill early this year requiring all schools and all childcare facilities to check their water outlets for lead and to remediate any that hit above a 3 ppb action level.
State Sen. Ruth Hardy, a Democrat who represents all of Addison County, was aware of Costanza-Robinson’s research and eager to learn more. Hardy’s husband, Jason Mittell, is a professor of film and media culture at the College, and their children are friends with Costanza-Robinson’s kids. Hardy, a member of the Senate Education Committee, didn’t take much convincing to support the bill. And because she says she wanted “to be sure that whatever we did was scientifically sound and grounded in good methodology, I felt it was really important to hear from Molly.”
In February, Costanza-Robinson went to the Statehouse in Montpelier to give testimony in support of the bill. She also enlisted the help of the state’s pediatricians and got 30 to sign on to a letter urging the state legislature to pass a 3 ppb action level. “Having an environmental chemistry professor at the Statehouse speak to the message that there’s no safe level of lead in drinking water, she was a powerful advocate to carry that message,” says David Grass of the Health Department.
Not so powerful, though, that she got everything she wanted. Legislators bumped and nudged, scraped and cajoled, and the final bill emerged with an action level of 4 parts per billion—a higher permissible level of lead than she would have liked—but also a healthy sum of money to offset the cost of replacing fixtures in schools.
“The action level we landed on is significantly lower than the federal one and the lowest in the country,” says Hardy, with a note of pride and celebration in her voice. “The bill is being touted as a national model.”
The final measure faced virtually no opposition, sailing through both houses of the General Assembly with only three nay votes. Gov. Phil Scott signed it into law in June. By the end of 2020, every school and childcare facility in the state will have submitted water for testing, which the Health Department will pay for. A searchable website is already up and running so citizens can look up test results town by town. And there is $3 million set aside to help schools pay for new fixtures where a problem is detected. (All of the schools in both the state and Robinson Lab research studies have already fixed the issues with their outlets.)
“I’m never content, but yes, I’m happy with the outcome,” says Costanza-Robinson, adding, “We’ll get it down to 1 part per billion eventually.”
Buzby, who graduated before the research project was completed, is unsurprised that her professor’s efforts have culminated in a seminal state law that will have a positive impact on the health of Vermont’s kids. “Molly is incredible. I really loved having a woman as my advisor and mentor. She is so dedicated to her students and still has time to do these research projects,” says Buzby, adding that her participation in the lead study “1,000 percent” helped land her a job at the San Francisco Estuary Institute.
The experience has crystallized Costanza-Robinson’s understanding of her role as an environmental chemist, professor, parent, and community member. “I wouldn’t say I’m looking to be an activist,” she says. “I’m looking to be useful.”