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Pittsburgh Public Schools is celebrating the completion of its “Filter First” drinking fountain project. The district replaced all unfiltered water fountains by installing close to 1,300 lead-filtering ones.

Speaking at Dilworth PreK-5 on Monday, David Masur with the advocacy group PennEnvironment encouraged schools across the state to follow the district’s example. Pennsylvania does not require schools to replace older fountains with high-filtration ones, though some state lawmakers have introduced bills to change that.

“This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. The technology exists today,” Masur said. “And it’s just a question of, will school districts have the desire and will to follow the leadership of PPS to make these projects possible?”

PPS sustainability manager Sanjeeb Manandhar said the project cost roughly $5.5 million to complete. The district started rolling out a long-term project to systematically replace outdated water fountains in 2016, after 3% of its taps — including 141 sinks and water fountains — tested above the safe levels.

Pennsylvania only requires schools with lead levels at or above 15 parts per billion, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency action level for lead, to remediate the issue, though health officials say no amount is safe for children’s bodies. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, even low levels of lead in children’s blood can cause brain damage, affecting their ability to pay attention and their academic achievement.

Given the presence of lead-containing plumbing equipment in many of the district’s older buildings, Manandhar said the district determined that replacing every drinking water fountain — regardless of testing levels — would be the most effective and feasible approach.

As an additional precaution, PPS has also installed 175 filtered sink fixtures across the district’s early childhood classrooms and nurse’s offices, according to Manandhar. He said the district also plans to add additional filtered bottle-filling stations and hoses to its athletic facilities, as well as filtration systems that protect students from toxic PFAS chemicals.

“If we put students first, all ways and always, this is just a no-brainer,” said district superintendent Wayne Walters. “Their health and safety is just as important as the academic experiences.”

How a state bill and federal rule change could protect kids from lead in water