Lead could be lurking in the water at your child's day care. It's a toxic metal that can't be seen, smelled or tasted in water.
Although the state offers free water testing to any licensed child care facility, the vast majority of facilities in Tennessee have not participated.
The most common sources of lead in drinking water are pipes, faucets and plumbing fixtures that contain the metal, and the best way to lower risk of exposure is to test the water and replace the culprit plumbing fixture or install a filter if results come back positive for lead.
While Tennessee law mandates that schools test their drinking water for lead, no such requirement exists for day cares, which some children attend five days a week. Infants who drink formula are especially vulnerable due to the large volume of water they consume relative to their body size.
Brook Powell, an environmental scientist at Tennessee's Department of Environment and Conservation, said in a phone interview that's why it's so important for centers to test their drinking water. Through a partnership with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the department is providing free testing assistance along with funds to correct the issue if needed.
"It could be very impactful if one child care center has elevated lead levels, even if it's just one fixture," Powell said.
Lead poisoning risk varies depending on the person, water conditions and the amount consumed. Children younger than 6 are especially at risk for developing lifelong brain and nervous system damage -- causing problems with growth, development, learning, behavior, hearing and speech -- if they consume high levels of lead over an extended period of time.
For those reasons, masters of public health students are now working under the supervision of Dawn Ford, a public health professor at UTC, to get more child care centers tested. The students provide outreach and help walk staff through the testing process.
Ford said that aside from being home to a university willing to partner, Hamilton County was chosen in part due to its history of high lead levels.
"We know that there are some issues in this area in schools, and so it's a natural connection that we believe there could be some issues in child care centers as well," Ford said.
(READ MORE: Thousands of Southside Chattanooga homes still need testing for toxic lead)
In addition to Hamilton County facilities, students are reaching out to child cares in neighboring Marion and Bradley counties, for a total of 185 licensed facilities. Outreach began July 1, but because students do most of the work, Ford said they started ramping up outreach efforts after school started in August.
The students will also provide educational materials to the child care providers, such as templates staff can use if they're wanting to correspond with the parents to let them know about the testing or in cases where they want to share test results, Powell said.
"It's not just that we're going to say, 'Hey, here's the free lead testing,' but we also will stay through this process with you," Powell said, noting that if test results show unsafe lead levels, centers can access up to $1,000 in grant funds to replace plumbing fixtures or install a filter to fix the problem.
"It's a noncompetitive grant. So basically, once we make that referral and the day care's wanting to remediate, then those funds are available for them," Powell said.
At first, the idea was to have the UTC students collect the samples, but Powell said program officials and the participating students learned it's easier for the child care centers if the students order the tests and have them mailed directly to the facilities.
Since the UTC partnership started, eight out of the 185 identified facilities have agreed to participate. TDEC does not have results for them yet, Powell said.
Though the partnership with UTC is focused on Hamilton, Bradley and Marion counties, any Head Start/Early Head Start facilities and licensed child care centers can request test kits containing collection bottles, instructions and prepaid return shipping labels by calling 615-262-6300 or emailing Lead_Testing.Support@tn.gov.
Contact Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.