Prove your humanity

When it comes to lead, there is no safe level in children’s blood, according to the EPA and the CDC. Even low levels of lead in kids’ bodies can lead to behavioral and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, anemia, and slowed growth. That’s why it’s particularly troubling that many children are exposed to lead at school through drinking water.

New legislation, Senate Bill 986, in Harrisburg, would require schools to replace older water fountains with high-filtration ones that remove lead by 2026. An update to a federal regulation could further reduce lead exposure in water.

To learn more, The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with David Masur, the executive director of PennEnvironment, a nonprofit advocacy group. 

LISTEN to the conversation:

Kara Holsopple: Earlier this year, Penn Environment Research and Policy Center graded states on policies and regulations to keep lead out of schools’ drinking water. And Pennsylvania earned an F. What’s the scope of the problem in Pennsylvania?

David Masur: There are substantive problems and political problems, and I think we have to remember to keep them separate. The substantive problem is the data show that lead in school drinking water is wildly pervasive across the Commonwealth. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a city, suburb or in rural Pennsylvania, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in a red county or a blue county or a purple county. The odds are if you have school buildings that were built or have components in piping or drinking fountains before 2014, you could have high and elevated levels of lead.

The odds are if you have school buildings that were built or have components in piping or drinking fountains before 2014, you could have high and elevated levels of lead.

There’s significant data when schools have been tested for lead in drinking water and shared those results, it’s very common. For example, in a recent study by Women for a Healthy Environment, when they looked at tests from schools, over 90 percent of schools had drinking water tests coming back positive for lead. The substantive problem is lead is pervasive in our schools, and kids are the most vulnerable to lead contamination. 

The political problem is we’ve known that for a long time, and yet our elected officials sadly have done very little at the state level to try and tackle that issue and protect kids.

Kara Holsopple: In 2018, a proposed bill in Pennsylvania with bipartisan support would have required both public and private schools to test for lead every two years, install filters and other fixes for any levels of lead above five parts per billion, which is lower than EPA’s allowed level.

But it ended up that schools were only encouraged to test for lead. Why has it been so difficult to create policies to remove lead from school drinking water statewide when we know how dangerous it is for kids? 

David Masur: Even in a world of polarized politics, who really wants any child drinking lead in water? There was some opposition from school district lobbyists, basically saying this is an unfunded mandate for us, and we don’t want to do this if it’s unpaid for.

There are some philosophical differences in a polarized political world. You know, what is the role of big government? Is this, you know, too much big brother telling local communities what they must do or not do? When you look at funding issues, some conservatives think taxpayer money shouldn’t go to projects like this. There is fiscal conservatism, and certainly, we’ve seen a political logjam in Harrisburg for a number of years.

We’ve reintroduced the bill and actually improved it based on a set of best practices. Sadly, there were so many sessions where we introduced that bill, the technology and best practices have improved dramatically. Now, we’re starting over again with a bill that will solve the problem much better than the previously proposed bill. 

Kara Holsopple: Right, State Senator Devlin Robinson recently introduced the bill requiring schools to replace all outdated water fountains with high-filtering ones by 2026. It creates a $30 million fund to do that. How far does it go to address the problem?

David Masur: This is really the best practice in the nation. If Pennsylvania passed this law, it would be a national leader in the effort to protect kids from lead in school drinking water. This policy we call the “filter first” policy.

The idea that any lead level is acceptable is unacceptable for our kids’ health. 

The idea is that testing is not a preventative step. The public sometimes doesn’t realize lead is what we consider a moving contaminant. You could test your sink today and find no lead, but you can test it in three months and find extremely high levels of lead because lead is being absorbed into the water from the pipe. It’s not from the source. Water and different environmental factors can change the speed at which that lead is absorbed into water. And the idea that any lead level is acceptable is unacceptable for our kids’ health. 

This bill would make Pennsylvania a national leader by replacing drinking fountains with lead-filtering water, bottle-filling stations or lead-filtering drinking fountains. The data show that there’s almost no lead when the equipment is properly taken care of.

It’s a very cheap alternative. It’s much more cost-effective for school districts, which is, in essence, taxpayers, to replace the drinking fountain at the point of discharge of the water versus to rip out all the pipes through a whole school building from the street through all the walls and the drinking fountain itself.

Studies show that for schools, we do find lead both in the service line that runs from the street to the school building but also in the pipes, in the walls, the soldering that is holding those pipes together in the walls, and even in the components of drinking fountains. 

Kara Holsopple: What about water in school cafeterias? 

David Masur: Those get covered, too. The technology is a little bit different when you have a sink versus a fountain, but all of these would be covered to help protect kids.

Kara Holsopple: Well, let’s talk about removing lead service lines. Under the Biden administration’s proposed changes to the Lead and Copper Rule, every water system that has led service lines will have to create a plan to replace 10% of those lines each year for up to ten years. How much could this reduce kids’ exposure to lead at home?

David Masur: If this policy gets done, it’ll be a huge victory, really a home run for the Biden administration and for protecting kids. Lead in home drinking water is probably the number one source for the threat of lead in drinking water. Pennsylvania has more lead service lines than almost any state in the nation. So this is really a huge step forward.

Proposed rule would force Pittsburgh water utilities to prevent lead contamination

Kara Holsopple: Does the money allocated in the bipartisan Infrastructure Law specifically to help water systems pay for this lead line replacement, $15 billion–does it come close to what it would cost? 

David Masur: Local water authorities probably will have to chip in. Certainly, it will depend a lot on how many service lines any given water authority or community has. But the price is fairly low to replace lead service lines.

My experience is Pennsylvanians and Americans would say this is a fairly small price to pay to protect our kids from something that we know causes learning disorders and all sorts of other health effects. It has a rippling effect on our communities. When our kids are challenged in their learning they take with them through their lives. It’s harder to succeed in school. It’s harder to get a good job.

These have long-term effects on our health, but also certainly on how our communities and economy work. There are studies showing lead contamination leads to increased crime rates, and so there’s a litany of effects. I tend to think people believe it’s a small cost because, generally, people know the threat of lead, and they want solutions implemented to tackle it.

Kara Holsopple: Do you think the rule change goes far enough in removing lead from drinking water? Would you like to see anything else? 

David Masur: There are a couple of things that the Biden administration could propose before finalizing the rule that would make it go from an A to an A-plus plus. There are some protections you could put in place around trying to make sure that we’re not replacing pipes made of metal with plastic PVC piping and just increasing our societal addiction to dangerous plastics and all the things we’re learning about how those are bad for our health in different ways than lead. That could be clarified in the final rule.

There are some loopholes that allow a set of very large cities to potentially extend having to do this work for decades. That’s probably a bridge too far. Also, the rule doesn’t include any of the things we were talking about earlier about school buildings.

So while they could help replace lead service lines that are going into schools, the reality is there’s so much potential lead in the pipes in the buildings themselves and drinking fountain components. We’ve actually seen some school districts around the country where they replace their lead service lines thinking they’ve solved the problem, but they’ve gone back in and tested and still found elevated levels of lead. It didn’t solve the problem. You have to deal with all of that lead in the building.

David Masur is the executive director of PennEnvironment, a nonprofit advocacy group.