Press Release

‘Clean Water for Carolina Kids’ Program Wins Harvard’s Roy Award for Environmental Partnership

| Sep. 09, 2020

Work protects North Carolina’s children from dangerous lead exposure

CAMBRIDGE, MA – The Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs announced today that Clean Water for Carolina Kids is the winner of the 2020 Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership. The partnership of RTI International, NC Child, the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, and the North Carolina Division of Public Health protects children and infants from exposure to lead from drinking water at child care centers and schools.

The prestigious Roy Family Award is presented every two years to celebrate 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 – a nonprofit research institute, a community advocacy group, a pro-bono public interest law school clinic and a state public health agency – to make a critical advancement in children’s health in North Carolina.

“For almost 20 years, the Roy Family Award has recognized partnerships that provide tangible benefits for people and the environment with the hope that the benefits could be transferred to millions,” said Henry Lee, Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program, which coordinates the award. “The 2020 winner more than meets this high standard. The partnership will protect hundreds of thousands of children in North Carolina while providing a replicable model for other states and regions – and a shining example of how science-driven, highly-local approaches can effectively address environmental and public health challenges.”

It is estimated that 800 million children worldwide have dangerous levels of lead in their bodies. Lead causes damage to children’s developing brains and nervous systems even at very low concentrations, causing irreversible cognitive decline and behavioral difficulties. Standard public health practice is to test and treat children after exposure rather than proactively rooting out lead poisoning sources.

The Clean Water for Carolina Kids team stands outside of the building where the testing rule was just approved in September 2019. From left to right is Tom Vitaglione (NC Child), Jennifer Hoponick Redmon (RTI), Vikki Crouse (NC Child), Nancy Lauer (Duke), and Ed Norman (NC DPH).

The Clean Water for Carolina Kids team stands outside of the building where the testing rule was just approved in September 2019. From left to right is Tom Vitaglione (NC Child), Jennifer Hoponick Redmon (RTI), Vikki Crouse (NC Child), Nancy Lauer (Duke), and Ed Norman (NC DPH). (Photo courtesy of RTI)

The Clean Water for Carolina Kids partnership was formed to address early childhood exposure to lead from drinking and cooking water. A 2017 RTI study piloted its 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 Pb (0.1 part per billion, or ppb). One in six centers contained lead above 15 ppb in at least one tap. Variability of lead concentrations was high among individual taps within centers, suggesting every tap used for drinking or cooking should be tested (Redmon et al., 2020).

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.

“Lead disproportionally impacts children and members of our most vulnerable communities,” notes Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, the Project Director and a Senior Environmental Health Scientist at RTI International. “Our partnership aims to proactively identify and remove lead in water sources so that all children, and especially those in disadvantaged and minority communities, may reach their full potential.”

The approach includes the use of mail-out test kits, an online enrollment and reporting portal, and most importantly, training and communication support. Coincidentally, the testing approach is also ideal during the COVID-19 pandemic. Using this community-based approach allows child care and school administrators to understand the problem, communicate with staff, parents, and children, and take collective action to make water quality improvements.

Members of the Clean Water for Carolina Kid team conduct water sampling. 

Members of the Clean Water for Carolina Kid team conduct water sampling. (Photo courtesy of RTI)

With federal grant funding since April 2020, the program is currently testing and providing communication support for needed mitigation in all open licensed North Carolina child care centers and elementary schools with Head Start programs. When lead is identified, there are often simple options for getting it out of taps, including the use of no-cost clean water habits along with low-cost solutions such as the replacement of lead-contaminated faucets or the installation and maintenance of filtration systems.

“The Clean Water for Carolina Kids collaboration has been critical to extending the reach of environmental health programs working against limited resources and diminished public trust,” said Ed Norman, the Program Manager for the NC Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. “We continue to improve the safety of drinking water throughout our state by eliminating faucets and plumbing that leach dangerous amounts of toxic lead into water. Our partnership has improved the health outcomes of thousands of North Carolinians beginning in childhood but lasting a lifetime.”

Although the described approach does not solve the United States’ aging infrastructure crisis – which is complex and requires significant financial investment to resolve – it prevents childhood exposure to lead in drinking and cooking water in a timely manner, before today’s children are tomorrow’s adults. By focusing on prevention, the partnership 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.

An expansion of the program is planned in 2021 for voluntary testing of family child care homes and elementary schools, with enrollment prioritized based on financial need, racial equity and building age. While North Carolina is the first state in the U.S. to use this novel approach to identify lead in child care water and schools, the program is scalable as a national model to advance efforts to eliminate childhood lead exposure in other states, child care centers, schools, and homes.

The partnership was selected from a pool of high-potential nominees from around the world that strive to address seemingly intractable environmental problems ranging from coastal and marine plastics pollution, using urban forestry projects to offset emissions from university travel, to structuring a multi-state carbon trading scheme for the transportation sector. 

The Roy Award will be presented to the partners during a virtual celebration hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School later this fall.


Comments from Additional Partners

“The teachers and administrators in North Carolina’s child care centers deserve enormous gratitude for the ways they go the extra mile for young children every day. They understood immediately that infants and young children are uniquely sensitive to the long-term, harmful impacts of lead exposure. Their willingness to show up for families and young kids - as teachers, as caregivers, and now as citizen scientists - inspires us all to work harder for kids each day.”

Vikki Crouse, Policy Analyst/NC KIDS COUNT Project Director, NC Child: The Voice for North Carolina's Children

“Under the previous regulatory approach, a child had to be poisoned with lead before the source of contamination was identified and mitigated. This regulatory gap may have resulted in the exposure of thousands of children to lead, albeit at levels lower than the outdated statutory threshold for ‘poisoning.’ Our partnership highlighted a distinct need for focused regulatory attention on health standards rather than corrosion control. The new statewide testing rule helps close that gap. We can protect children from lead hazards, as this partnership demonstrates, and can do so without breaking the bank. We hope this effort will be replicated in other states.”

Michelle B. Nowlin, Clinical Professor of Law and Co-Director, Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

About the Clean Water for Carolina Kids Program

This partnership was formed to end the de facto use of children as lead detectors and address problems associated with early childhood exposure to lead from water.  Children consume a significant portion of their drinking water, infant formula, and prepared foods while in school or in child care.  Nevertheless, state-licensed child care centers were not previously required to test their water for the presence of lead.  In fact, the only time testing occurred is when a child in its care was found to have lead poisoning based on infrequent pediatric blood testing. Prior efforts to address requirements for lead testing in child care water were unsuccessful because of a lack of data on whether lead was prevalent and uncertainty regarding costs.

Our multi-sectoral partnership meshed sectors and disciplines. RTI’s Clean Water for Carolina Kids pilot study showed that 1) lead is present in drinking and cooking water at child care centers in North Carolina, and 2) a citizen-science based testing protocol is feasible. The Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic used the scientific findings to devise a regulatory and fiscal basis for a proposed rule. NC Child advocated for the state to address the problem on behalf of children, child care centers, and citizens. With support from the child care community, the North Carolina Division of Public Health used the scientific, legal, and economic analysis to successfully propose an update to North Carolina’s statewide child care sanitation rules. The resulting Clean Water for Carolina Kids program is managed by RTI International and administered by the North Carolina Division of Public Health. Overall, our partnership allowed for effective innovation to solve a significant environmental health challenge that can be expanded and transferred to different geographical areas and settings.


Organizational Information

“RTI International is an independent, nonprofit research institute based in North Carolina. Its vision is to address critical problems that affect the human condition with science-based solutions. RTI International is dedicated to protecting children’s health using state-of-the-science laboratory analytical techniques and environmental health expertise. The protocol and research findings from RTI’s Clean Water for Carolina Kids pilot study were used as the scientific basis for a proposed statewide rule. RTI’s feasible citizen science approach to identify and remove lead in water is being used for statewide testing in North Carolina using our Clean Water for Carolina Kids program and is scalable and transferable to other locations and projects to further identify and eliminate childhood exposure to lead in water. For more information, please see www.cleanwaterforcarolinakids.org, https://www.rti.org/impact/detecting-lead-drinking-water-north-carolina-childcare-centers, or www.cleanwaterforUSkids.org."

“The North Carolina Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program within the Environmental Health Section of the Division of Public Health is committed to eliminating early childhood exposure to lead. Based on the scientific findings, legal context, and community support shown for testing and removing lead in water at child care centers, the North Carolina Division of Public Health formally proposed a change to the child care sanitation administrative code in 2018. The rule (15A NCAC 18A .2816) to require all licensed child care centers to test for lead in water used for drinking or food preparation was approved with an effective date of October 1, 2019. Testing is required once every three years with action required when elevated lead is identified.”

“NC Child is a non-profit organization that builds a strong North Carolina by advancing public policies to ensure all children – regardless of race, ethnicity, or place of birth – have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. NC Child is a trusted community partner for both parents and child care facilities in the state. Equipped with scientific, legal, and regulatory information on lead in child care water from our partnership, NC Child successfully advocated for a statewide testing requirement and is helping to ensure statewide implementation is inclusive of various child care centers and children. NC Child has also helped to create how-to videos with RTI staff to make it easier than ever to become a citizen scientist and protect children from lead in water.”

“The Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic is a joint enterprise of Duke University’s Law School and Nicholas School of the Environment. The Clinic trains the next generation of environmental leaders while providing support to nonprofit organizations and clients involved in environmental conflicts. More than a dozen student attorneys and consultants worked on this initiative over the course of several years, conducting scientific research and combing through public records to understand the magnitude of the problem and the most effective strategies for intervention, and conducting legal research to ensure that the partnership’s recommendations were grounded in existing legal authority. It was an incredible opportunity for students to collaborate with professionals in the field to solve a problem that has such devastating impacts on families and our society. Activities are conducted as part of the schools’ academic mission and do not represent an official endorsement or policy of Duke University.”


About the Roy Family Award

The Roy Family has been a longtime supporter of the development of cross-sector partnerships to meet social and environmental goals. The Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership provides positive incentives for governments, companies, and organizations worldwide to push the boundaries of creativity and take risks that result in significant changes that benefit the environment.

This year marks the ninth time that the Harvard Kennedy School has bestowed the award. The 2018 winning project, the Advancing Green Infrastructure Program in New Haven, CT, was selected for its inclusive, replicable approach to dealing with the negative impacts of more frequent and intense rainfall events due to climate change.

The California Healthy Nail Salon Program, a partnership between the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, Asian Health Services (AHS), and five city and county government departments won in 2016. The Program addresses the environmental health and justice issues faced by workers in the salon industry and works to standardize safe, pollution prevention salon practices that can be implemented nationwide and globally.


Press Contacts

Amanda Sardonis
Harvard Kennedy School
amanda_sardonis@hks.harvard.edu
T: 1-617-495-1351

April Umminger
RTI International
aumminger@rti.org; news@rti.org
T: 1-919.541.7340

For more information on this publication: Please contact Environment and Natural Resources
For Academic Citation:‘Clean Water for Carolina Kids’ Program Wins Harvard’s Roy Award for Environmental Partnership.” Press Release, September 9, 2020.