HARRISBURG – A new state law that says schools must either test their drinking water for lead or discuss the issue in a public meeting if they choose to pass on testing is drawing criticism for not being strong enough.
Pennsylvania is the 17th state to pass a law targeting lead in school drinking water since the 2014 revelations about elevated lead levels in drinking water in Flint, Mich.
Advocates for testng say Pennsylvania’s law isn’t stringent enough. State Rep. Karen Boback, R-Luzerne County, has already proposed legislation to eliminate the option of passing on actual testing of drinking water in schools.
Boback announced her plans to introduce the legislation this session on Jan. 24. She'd introduced an identical bill in 2018 that had garnered bipartisan support from more than 70 lawmakers who signed on to cosponsor the legislation.
Pennsylvania’s new law says that schools that discover elevated levels of lead in their drinking water must notify the state Department of Education. The state agency is then supposed to create a web site identifying those schools.
But that web site does not yet exist, because no school district has come forward to say it's discovered elevated lead levels, said Eric Levis, a Department of Education spokesman.
It’s not clear whether that’s because schools have been doing lead testing and finding no problems or whether that’s because schools have been declining to check for lead in their drinking water, he said.
Schools are under no obligation to inform the Department of Education if they decide not to test or if their testing found no problems, he said.
That’s a problem, said Stephanie Wein, Clean Water and Conservation Advocate, for PennEnvironment, an environmental advocacy group.
The move to allow schools to opt out of testing by discussing the issue at a school board meeting “is pretty big loophole,” that effectively means the legislation just encouraged districts to test their water instead of requiring it, she said.
Few members of the public pay attention to the regular business of their school boards, so it’s likely that the issue is getting overlooked by many people.
Annette Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association on Friday said she “has no indication” that the school board group took a position regarding whether the lead-testing should be required or not.
Wein agreed that she too is unaware of any “organized opposition” to the proposal for requiring schools to test for lead.
She said one issue is that many people seem to question the need for using stricter levels than those set by the Environmental Protection Agency, as Boback's bill would.
The lead-testing requirement was rolled into a broader update to the school law. As lawmakers were negotiating what should be included in that update, the lead-testing rules were added, but the legislation was softened to make testing optional.
“While we’re glad the Legislature took a first step” on the issue, advocates hope that they’ll now take the second step and make testing a requirement, Wein said. “Every school has to test their water” for lead levels, she said.
The issue of lead in schools has been particularly worrisome because children spend so much time at school and they may be susceptible to suffering ill effects from lead exposure, according to the state Department of Education.
Scientists have linked the effects of lead on the brain with lowered IQ in children, according to the Education Department’s lead in drinking water information sheet.
Although lead pipes and lead solder were not commonly used after 1986, water fountains and other fixtures were allowed to have up to 8 percent lead until 2014, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released last July.
That report found that in districts where drinking water was tested for lead, 37 percent of districts found elevated levels of lead in school drinking water.
State Rep. Boback has circulated a co-sponsorship memo seeking support from other lawmakers for a proposal to beef up the lead-testing law.
In that memo, Boback said that the revelations of lead in the drinking water in Flint “served as a wake-up call: a problem many Pennsylvanians thought had been solved for decades, lead in our drinking water, remains a threat.”
Her legislation would require schools to test and it would use a lower-threshold for determining that the lead levels in drinking water requires action by school districts. Schools must notify the Department of Education if there is 15 parts-per-billion of lead in the drinking water. This is the standard used for drinking water by the EPA.
Boback’s bill would cut that lead limit to 5 parts-per-billion, the standard that bottled water must meet.
The lower threshold is appropriate because medical experts warn that there’s no acceptable level for lead in drinking water, said Wein.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics's recommendations is that water fountains in schools use a cut-off of 1ppb,” Wein said. “The bill we support is not quite as ambitious, using an action level of 5ppb, which would still make Pennsylvania a leader for addressing lead in school water and put us closer to what the medical community thinks is necessary.”
The GAO’s survey found that 23 percent of school districts that tested for leading considered lead levels below 15 ppm for initiating remedial action.
Among the other states with similar laws are the neighboring states of Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Ohio, according to the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council.
Maryland’s law, passed in 2017, required drinking water be tested by for lead levels in all school buildings serving children in grades kindergarten through fifth grade, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The school drinking water lead testing laws in New Jersey and New York, passed in 2016, require all schools to test their drinking water.
An Ohio law set aside $16 million to be awarded in grants to help schools cover the cost of testing for lead in their drinking water. The Associated Press reported last year that of 14,000 faucet fixtures examined through the Ohio testing program, about 10 percent had lead levels about the federal limit.