This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
After a prolonged push from advocates, activists, city leaders and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the School District will accelerate its lead testing of each drinking water outlet in every school and will modify its test methods. The testing will be completed in June 2017, instead of 18-month timeline that was 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.”
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, 15 parts per billion. That testing covered 361 fountains and found 49 with lead levels above that benchmark. Fountains that exceeded the limit were shut off immediately.
The District later 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, a lower proportion than the first round of tests alone found.District spokesman Kevin Geary said the new testing protocol would not include flushing — running the outlet for eight hours before testing — so that the testing could be finished faster. Geary said this would probably lead to a larger portion of outlets surpassing the safe threshold.
The outlets with lead levels above that threshold will either be shut off 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.
Jerry Roseman, an environmental scientist consulting for the PFT, said he was glad the District made the new test results available on its website, but he also requested they publish the test results from the last round of testing that concluded in 2010. Instead, the District uploaded a generic form letter sent home to the parents at each school assuring them that the water tested safe.
Alarmed by initial results The push for testing began last winter when advocates from the Food Trust, Youth United for Change, and the PFT met with the District to discuss water quality and access. The meeting was part of the District’s GreenFutures initiative, through which sessions with advocates and community members were organized and a five-year plan to improve schools’ infrastructure was developed. Advocates involved wanted to retest every school using a more stringent safety threshold for lead and to install filtered water fountains called hydration stations. The District compromised by agreeing to retest every outlet at 40 schools using the new threshold and to put three hydration stations in each school. Advocates who attended the meeting said District representatives appeared confident that the water would pass the safety test. When the initial results came in, the District was alarmed and agreed to expand the testing to every school, finishing in 18 months. But advocates said that was too long, and the District announced the new accelerated timeline the day before a City Council hearing that was called partly to address the length of testing. Councilwoman Helen Gym organized the session. “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.” The District also announced that each school would have at least one water fountain for every 100 students, as mandated by a City Council bill sponsored by Gym that passed in June. Idea came from students
Both the Food Trust and YUC got the idea to bring up access to safe drinking water from students in the District – the Food Trust from students at its annual summit and YUC from students at its chapter in ASPIRA’s Olney Charter High School.
Lead is particularly harmful when ingested by children younger than 6 years old. Hyperactivity, anemia, stunted growth, and behavioral and learning problems are all associated with lead.
The District’s plan includes the possibility of replacing the plumbing in schools found to have high lead levels, but it also suggests that outlets with high lead levels could be shut off.
The District plans to replace some components of old water fountains, but does not plan to replace any pipes, said District spokesman Lee Whack.
“The avoidance of a higher cost allows us to invest more in hydration stations and other aspects of our GreenFutures initiative,” Geary said.
“We wouldn’t be here had the grassroots not been pressing. People fought for that,” said Rapheal Randall, YUC’s executive director and one of the advocates who participated in the District’s GreenFutures initiative.
“I think that folks in Philly, working-class folks just trying to survive, need to know that change is possible when we come together and fight for something that makes all our lives more equitable.”