Every Child Deserves a Lead-Free School

There are 500 school districts across the state of Pennsylvania serving over 1.7 million school-aged children. By law, we require children to go to school, thus we must make every effort to ensure that their learning environments are safe, healthy, and conducive to learning. There are many complex issues our schools are facing head-on. Preventing lead poisoning does not have to be one of them. Lead poisoning is absolutely preventable. We know how to find lead in older buildings. We know how to remediate for lead. What it will take to protect children from this preventable hazard is supplying schools with the resources and tools available to help them successfully identify and remedy any lead hazards in their buildings. The question remains: do we have the political will to prioritize the health of our children, teachers, and school staff, who spend over 1,000 hours a year in their school buildings on average?

We are excited to share what we have learned through our experience working alongside 32 public school districts as they tested for lead in drinking water – many for the first time – and as they remediated these hazards through our 1,000 Hours a Year initiative. We have also learned that remediating for lead in drinking water is cost-effective. Elevated blood lead levels are correlated with neurocognitive delays, negative behavioral outcomes, lowered IQ, and increased risk of ADHD even at low levels. Lead poisoning’s effects are irreversible. Lead exposure is well-defined; its solutions are straight-forward and tangible. Though we have come a long way through stringent legislation, our public schools need more support through technical assistance, clear guidance, and fiscal sponsorship, to successfully remediate this hazard from the school environment.

Read below an excerpt from our special report on initial findings and recommendations from our 1,000 hours initiative.

” Pennsylvania schools are uniquely vulnerable.
Lead is a known hazard present in the indoor school environment. Through our State of Environmental Health in Southwestern PA Schools report, our organization determined the average age of school buildings is 67 years old – two decades older than the national average age of school buildings. Lead, a common metal valued for its binding properties, was used commonly in paint and solder connecting water service lines to one another. Most structures built before 1978 have lead present in some form; either through older layers of paint, in soil, or in water pipes, fixtures and fittings. Plumbing installed before 1986 and water fountains installed before 2014 are more likely to contain higher concentrations of lead. In 1986 a federal ban was issued requiring a maximum lead content of 8% by weight for brass plumbing, and in 2011 this level was again reduced to 0.25% of lead by weight in plumbing fixtures, pipes, and solder. In our report we also determined that majority of school buildings were constructed prior to 1952 – decades before lead was phased out of paint and plumbing, including water fountains and faucets.

Our public school districts face unique challenges and need clear guidance, fiscal-sponsorship, and legislative support to adequately address preventable environmental hazards in their buildings.

Regional data shows that exposure to lead in drinking water is preventable, and that testing and remediation are not cost-prohibitive.

Through our 1,000 Hours Initiative, we have provided funding and technical assistance to schools for testing and remediating lead in drinking water. Through this program we have worked with over 150 buildings across 32 public school districts and 9 non-public schools within a 7-county area of Western Pennsylvania. Below are the preliminary results from our 1,000 Hours Initiative.

Lead Testing
The average cost of lead in drinking water testing per school building was $1,054.40. Lead in drinking water testing costs ranged between $432.00 for a 1-building private school, and $9,775.89 for a 10-building public school district. These figures included testing of all water outlets for drinking and cooking within the school building. In every school district we tested, we confirmed the presence of lead in drinking water above 5 ppb – whether it was an isolated concentration of lead in a single sink in a classroom, or in dozens of drinking water outlets spread across multiple school buildings.

Lead Remediation
The average cost of remediation for a school building with lead-contaminated drinking water was $1,499.97. Remediation costs ranged from $520.10 for a 1-building charter school to $28,161.87 for an 8-building public school district. We have also learned that, despite acquiring testing results from municipal water authorities, lead contamination in schools was most likely coming from pipes, fittings, and fixtures within the school building. Some of our remediation activities included removing lead-contaminated water service lines, replacing faucet fixtures, and installing high-flow NSF-certified filtration systems; all of which are recommended actions by the Environmental Protection Agency’s 3 T’s for Testing for Lead in Drinking Water in Schools toolkit.

Retesting
After remediation was completed for lead in drinking water, follow-up retesting costs ranged from $328.00 to $3,845.78. Retesting was a requirement of participation in our 1,000 Hours Initiative. We relied on retest results to ensure that our partnerships with schools produced school buildings with no risk of exposure to lead in drinking water for remediated outlets. Schools must adhere to preventive maintenance schedules as an ongoing risk reduction activity.

Recommendations for policy-makers
In April 2019, Representative Boback introduced House Bill 930, An Act amending the act of March 10, 1949 known as the Public School Code of 1949 regarding required lead in drinking water testing for schools. We are in support of legislation that champions required lead testing, remediation, and public disclosure of testing results to school community members for all K-12 schools. Such legislation was also recommended by the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Advisory Committee and Task Force on Lead Exposure: “Water outlets in schools that are used for drinking and preparing food should [be] inspected and certified every three years to protect school-age children from lead exposure”. The following recommendations are based on our experience providing technical assistance, training, and fiscal support to test and remediate for lead in drinking water in over 150 school buildings. We have provided justification for our recommendations where necessary.

Recommendations:

  • Every school district tested within our 1,000 Hours Initiative found outlets with lead contamination above 5 ppb in drinking water. Required testing for all outlets used for drinking and cooking every year can identify lead contamination; however, testing alone cannot prevent or remediate lead contamination from affecting the health of students and staff. A more conservative testing schedule, with an emphasis on 1) identifying lead contamination through mandatory baseline testing of all water outlets for drinking and cooking in the upcoming school year, and 2) allocating resources and funding towards remediation and maintenance activities, is strongly recommended. Providing an option for schools who have been proactive in the past school year to continue testing in a representative sample of water outlets helps schools reserve resources and funding to alleviate current identified lead contamination.
  • We recommend including the School Board, in addition to the Department of Education, Department of Environmental Protection, and the school community, as a notified party due to their ability to create policy and increase community awareness.
  • We recommend language identifying the technical guidance created by the EPA specifically for schools; in the past, some schools relied on the guidance Safe Drinking Water Act which is meant to be used for community and municipal water authorities and is not adequate for use in school buildings. We also recommend that water samples be tested by an EPA-certified lab; not all environmental service labs have the proper tools to identify lead in drinking water specifically.
  • For many schools in our 1,000 Hours Initiative, our grant was the first opportunity for them to undergo lead in drinking water testing. As such, there was a lack of knowledge about proper procedures and communication protocols. Creating these educational resources for school staff should be a priority. Such an initiative can be led by the Department of Education and/or the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
  • A state-wide database would allow community members and citizens to easily access lead testing results for their school districts.
  • With the newly announced state WIIN Grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, a new funding stream to support lead testing in drinking water has become available, for the first time, for schools and childcare centers across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Tapping into this funding and allocating resources equitable across public schools within our commonwealth should be a priority to help alleviate some of the financial costs related to lead in drinking water testing. “


For the full report, email us at info@healthyschoolspa.org.

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