This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The state of Pennsylvania has received a grade of F for its efforts — or lack thereof — to solve the widespread problem of lead in the drinking water in school buildings, according to a PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center report titled Get the Lead Out.
“Schools should be safe places for children to learn and play, and yet Pennsylvania is failing,” said Stephanie Wein, a clean water advocate for PennEnvironment. “If we want to protect our children, it’s time to get the lead out.”
City Councilwoman Helen Gym applauded the Philadelphia School District’s efforts to test and address elevated lead levels in its schools. Along with Councilwomen Cindy Bass and Blondell Reynolds Brown, Gym’s office led the charge to get the District to test every school in the city, install filtered water fountains in each school, and retest every five years.
“The poisoning of Flint … reminded us of a problem we don’t have the luxury to forget: that our aging infrastructure and years of disinvestment in cities can lead to grave dangers for our children,” Gym said. “I’m proud of what the women of Council did last year. We came together to address one of the most pressing challenges our city faces.”
That effort hasn’t solved the city’s lead problems, but it has put Philadelphia’s schools ahead of many other Pennsylvania school districts. Most schools in the state have at least some lead in their pipes or fixtures, and most schools don’t conduct any testing for lead, according to the report.
“We need the ability to see a path to the future. We’re going to keep pushing the federal government and the state to do their part,” Gym said, “but in the meantime, it’s up to us to find interim solutions.”
The state’s abysmal letter grade resulted from the findings that it has no regulations on water safety in schools. No testing is required for school drinking water, and there are no limits on the allowable lead levels. The state also has no plan to remove lead infrastructure.
Philadelphia has adopted regular testing and lowered its own allowable threshold of 10 parts per billion, which officials say is based on EPA guidelines, but does not plan to remove lead infrastructure in its buildings. Instead, the District is installing three filtered water fountains, known as hydration stations, in every school.
Jerry Roseman, director of environmental health and occupational safety with the PFT, said that more than 9,000 pre-K students and 12,000 kindergarten students use the District’s buildings, as well as pregnant teachers and students — all groups that are at the highest risk for permanent damage to their health from exposure to even minuscule amounts of lead.
Wein of PennEnvironment called the findings of elevated lead levels in Philadelphia schools “just the tip of this toxic iceberg.”
“Most schools in Pennsylvania aren’t even testing their water for lead,” Wein said. “From the plumbing to the fixtures– in some cases, even the service line is made entirely of lead.”
“Public health experts have agreed that there is no safe level of exposure to lead, especially in our youngest children,” Roseman said.
“Lead is a serious neurotoxin,” said Walter Tsou, a physician and former health commissioner for the City of Philadelphia. He is now with Physicians for Social Responsibility. “It can infect the bones, teeth, and kidneys. In high enough doses, it can cause renal failure, and in very high doses, it can lead to a coma.”
Roseman credited the District’s Office of Environmental Management for testing more than 2,000 outlets so far, where they found at least one outlet in every building that was over its maximum lead threshold of 10 parts per billion (ppb). He said the District was “ahead” of others around the state.
“We can still do better by implementing preventative approaches,” Roseman said. He suggested adopting an even lower maximum threshold of 1 ppb.
The PennEnvironment report’s primary recommendation is “proactively removing lead-bearing parts from school’s drinking water systems — from service lines to faucets and fixtures — and installing filters certified to remove lead at every tap used for drinking or cooking.” It also recommends that the state provide the funding.
The report notes that other cities have implemented this approach: Madison, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan, have removed lead service lines from all homes, and New York City has replaced them in every school.
Washington, D.C., has set its maximum allowable threshold at 1 ppb, which is consistent with the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“[Parents] should not have to worry about whether the water fountain in school is a safety hazard. Pennsylvania must take steps to get the lead out of our children’s environment,” said State Sen. Vincent Hughes in a statement. “My colleagues and I are committed to doing our part as both legislators and advocates to take PennEnvironment’s recommendations seriously and put the right laws into place that will protect our children.”
State Rep. Pat Harkins, who represents Erie, also made a statement about the report.
“As a father, I know the risk that lead poses to our children,” he said. "And as a legislator, I look forward to working with our officials in Erie, the school district, and Harrisburg to implement the policies called for in this report.”
The report also calls for the federal government to strengthen the Lead and Copper Rule, which limits the concentration of lead and copper allowed in drinking water, and limits the permissible amount of corrosion in the pipes.
The report also quotes U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania: “When it comes to schools there often is an ideological divide … but potable water should know no ideological or political constraint.”