This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
After a prolonged push from advocates, activists, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the District announced today that it will accelerate the process of testing the lead level of each drinking water outlet in every school and will modify its testing methods. The testing will be completed in June 2017, taking less than a year instead of 18 months as originally planned.
The District plans to retest the drinking water every four years.
“Testing for lead concentration, installing hydration stations, and promoting education on healthy lifestyles continue to remain key aspects of our plan,” said District Chief Operating Officer Fran Burns. “As part of that commitment, we are not only dramatically accelerating our water-testing timeline, but expanding our lead water testing to add additional outlets throughout schools, including nurse’s offices and cold water kitchen sinks.”
District spokesman Kevin Geary said the new testing protocol would not include flushing — running the outlet for eight hours before testing — in order to finish the testing faster. Geary said this will probably lead to a larger portion of outlets failing to pass the safe threshold.
The initial round of tests found that nearly 15 percent of water outlets tested in the first 22 schools had lead levels above the District’s threshold. That testing covered 361 fountains and found 49 with lead levels above 15 parts per billion. Each fountain that was over the safety limit was shut off immediately.
The District today released the results from the final 18 schools in its first phase of testing. Of the 676 water outlets tested in 40 schools so far, 8 percent had lead levels above the safe threshold. That’s down from 14 percent in the first 22 schools.
The outlets with lead levels above the safe threshold will either be shut off within 24 hours or replaced with new filtered-water fountains called hydration stations. The District has installed more than 300 hydration stations, and it plans to put at least three in every school by the end of this school year.
The District also announced that it would ensure that each school has at least one water fountain for every 100 students, as mandated by a City Council bill sponsored by Councilwoman Helen Gym that passed in June, after a Council hearing on students’ access to safe drinking water. Gym has organized another hearing at 10 a.m. tomorrow.
“Ahead of our hearing, I am glad to hear the School District is accelerating its water testing timeline to meet the rigorous standards for comprehensive school water safety that we have been pushing for months,” Gym said in a statement. “Now, more than ever, it is critical that Philadelphia as a municipality establish clear safety standards to protect the health and safety of our young people.”
Lead is particularly harmful when ingested by children younger than 6. Health problems associated with lead include hyperactivity, anemia, stunted growth, and behavioral and learning problems.
Recent analyses have given Philadelphians further cause for concern.
A 2015 Huffington Post analysis of available lead poisoning data for U.S. cities found a correlation between cities with large African American populations, like Philadelphia, and elevated rates of lead poisoning. Low-income families tend to be at the highest risk of lead poisoning because they are the most likely to live in older homes with outdated paint and plumbing.
A study from the University of Cincinnati found that youth exposed to lead were more likely to commit violent crimes and therefore more likely to end up incarcerated as adults. The study’s authors point to the damage that lead exposure does to parts of the brain that help people focus, regulate emotions, and control their impulses. The study concluded that children exposed to lead are more likely to struggle in school and more likely to commit crimes as teens.
Part of the District’s plan includes the possibility of replacing the plumbing in schools found to have high lead levels, but it also suggests that the outlets with high lead levels could just be shut off.
“The avoidance of a higher cost allows us to invest more in hydration stations and other aspects of our Green Futures Initiative,” Geary said.
The issue may be addressed at Gym’s next hearing.
“To ensure that water safety remains a priority for years to come, our legislation, to be heard tomorrow by the Committee on Public Health and Human Services, will consider strict requirements that all schools in the city undergo a regular, predictable, and transparent process for testing drinking water, and for ensuring universal water access and water safety,” Gym said. “We look forward to working with the District to make this happen.”