PA Flunks in Removing Lead from School Drinking Water: Urgent Action Required to Safeguard Students

Lead in School Drinking WaterArthur G Steinberg (AFT-PA), Stephanie Wein (PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center), Jeff Ney (PSEA). /Submitted Image, Photo by Erika Brunelle

PENNSYLVANIA — As the school year kicks off across Pennsylvania, the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center has bad news for the commonwealth’s students, parents and school staff. The third edition of the nonprofit group’s Get The Lead Out report gave Pennsylvania an “F” grade for the inadequacy of the state’s policies aimed at stopping pervasive lead contamination of schools’ drinking water.

“School is for learning and playing — not getting a daily dose of lead-tainted water. Lead damages kids’ ability to learn, grow and behave. There is no safe level of lead for children,”  said Stephanie Wein, clean water advocate for the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center.  “Protecting our kids’ health requires prevention at every drinking water tap — and our report card gives Pennsylvania a failing grade.”

As more Pennsylvania schools test their water, most schools have found that their drinking water systems contain lead, from the pipes running through school buildings and the soldering used to hold the pipes together, to the components in the drinking fountains themselves.  Wherever there is lead, there is a risk of water contamination.  For example, the School District of Philadelphia found that 98% of school buildings  had drinking outlets test positive for lead. In the past, Pennsylvania topped the list for elevated lead levels in schools and child care centers required to test under federal law. More recently, according to a 2021 report by Women for a Healthy Environment, of 65 Pennsylvania school districts surveyed, 91% of those tested found lead in their water.

“We were disappointed to find that — once again — Pennsylvania is sitting at the back of the class for protecting drinking water at school,” said Wein. “Our kids deserve better.”

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A bipartisan group of legislators in the state Senate, led by State Sens. Devlin Robinson (R-Allegheny County), John Kane (D-Delaware and Chester counties) and Art Haywood (D-Philadelphia and Montgomery counties),  have announced their intention to introduce protect children from across the commonwealth from  lead in school drinking water.

“Lead in our schools’ drinking water is not a partisan issue,” said Jeff Ney, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “It’s not about politics at all. It’s about the health and safety of our kids. It’s about a critical safety issue that’s actively endangering our community’s health.”

While Pennsylvania law encourages schools to test at least some taps for lead annually, a loophole allows school districts to avoid this requirement simply by discussing the issue at a public meeting.  And when testing does occur, officials have implemented the law as requiring remediation only for taps exceeding EPA’s action level (15 parts per billion (ppb), and it was graded accordingly. In PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center’s comparison of all 50 states, these shortfalls gave Pennsylvania an F.

“There is no safe lead exposure level for children,” said Arthur G. Steinberg, President, AFT Pennsylvania. “That is why our union has long advocated for legislative policies that protect our children, their families, and our educators from toxins like lead, in addition to mold and asbestos, which are inextricably linked by lack of investment in public schools, especially in lower-income and minority communities. The time for Pennsylvania to make progress on lead in schools is now.”

“PTA strongly advocates for safe environments in all schools. This includes ensuring clean drinking water in all schools,” added Yvonne Johnson, president of the National Parent Teacher Association.

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The report recommends several actions to keep Pennsylvania’s kids from drinking lead-tainted water:

  • Replacing drinking fountains with filtered water stations. This step has the added benefit that children tend to drink more water when they have access to hydration stations.
  • Set a statewide, health-based standard for lead in school drinking water of no more than 1ppb, the level recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Notify the public about how school districts are addressing the problem.

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