Despite greater scrutiny, depth of schools' lead problem unclear
Ronald Joseph recalled waking up anxious every Friday for two months straight.
The chief technology officer of Pennsylvania's second-largest school district described having "a hold-your-breath moment" each week during summer 2016 as he met with fellow administrators to learn the latest results from lead testing at all 70 buildings run by Pittsburgh Public Schools, whose oldest campus dates to 1893.
"You don't know what's going to be uncovered," Joseph said, "and you know that once you test, you're going to be responsible for the results and performing remediation so the school doesn't end up inoperable or relying on bottled water."
For Pittsburgh, the results provided relief: Of more than 2,300 plumbing fixtures, classroom sinks and drinking fountains swabbed for lead, just 3 percent — or about 70 fixtures, including 14 fountains — showed levels above the federal threshold of 20 parts per billion (ppb). The district removed or replaced them immediately.
"Once we saw that the results were coming in better than what we had predicted for the age of our facilities, it was very reassuring," Joseph said.
Some Western Pennsylvania school districts haven't been so lucky.
What we don't know
The majority of school officials statewide who have decided to test for lead in recent years have been relieved to find few issues, in line with national evidence suggesting that lead risks in public schools aren't nearly as threatening as lead-related dangers identified in the likes of greater Pittsburgh's aging homes .
Alarmingly high lead levels, however, have been recorded in pockets of Pennsylvania and across the country — even districts without pervasive problems have been surprised to learn of extremely dangerous lead readings in isolated spaces, such as a rarely used classroom sink.
At Summit Elementary School in Butler County, school officials had assured parents their funny-tasting drinking water was safe until an attorney filed a public records request last year and discovered the district's water supply had recorded lead levels as high as 175 percent above the federal threshold.
The revelation rocked the community, leading to Summit Elementary's closing, the resignation of three administrators, a criminal investigation and a federal lawsuit . The board decided to switch from wells to public water and hopes to reopen the school this year, with its students temporarily using the former Broad Street Elementary, a district-owned building that had sat vacant a few miles away
"It's a slow process, not a quick remedy," said newly installed Superintendent Brian White of the work underway, including flushing the school to get its pH balances at the right level. "Everyone understands it's not going to reopen until the water is safe."
At Deer Lakes School District in Allegheny County — where students resumed class Thursday — district officials disclosed last week results showing that while most of their fixtures were deemed safe from lead, high levels of radon were found in three rooms and higher-than-acceptable levels of lead were detected in two drinking water sources.
The persisting dilemma: In 2017, no one can be sure which schools are the ones in danger.
Lack of oversight
Like 40 other states, Pennsylvania does not require public schools to test for lead.
Only rural schools that rely on wells fall under federal oversight rules enforced by the state Department of Environmental Protection, DEP spokesman Neil Shader said.
Between 2012 and 2015, about 350 U.S. schools and day care facilities failed federal lead tests 470 times, a USA Today report found . Pennsylvania schools and day cares with their own water supplies accounted for 37 of those failed tests — the most in any state.
Meanwhile, increasing bodies of research and medical professionals have been emphasizing that there is no safe level of lead in a child's blood. Exposure to even small amounts are linked to delays in physical or mental development. Children could show slight deficits in attention span and learning abilities. In adults, lead exposure can cause kidney problems and high blood pressure.
On Wednesday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced he wants to make lead testing mandatory for all young children after learning that less than one-third of toddlers get tested. Allegheny County became the first municipality to pass mandatory-testing legislation, which takes effect for 1- and 2-year-olds on Jan. 1.
Last year, lawmakers introduced 89 bills in 12 states to address lead as a public health issue, Pew Charitable Trusts data show. That includes legislation reintroduced in Pennsylvania that has failed repeatedly to gain traction.
Public pressure has been mounting to eradicate lead dangers since the 2014-16 drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich ., where lead leached from pipes, contaminated people's water and put thousands of children at risk.
"Policymakers have an obligation to safeguard their constituents," said Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of Michigan State University-Hurley Children's Hospital Pediatrics Public Health Initiative.
Hanna-Attisha — the pediatrician who helped Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards uncover the Flint water crisis — lamented what she perceives as a "disconnect" between the level of concern and level of action.
'Creative' financing deals
Nationwide, communities that stand out for reducing lead risks have been "creative in their financing," often pulling from a combination of municipal, state and private funds, said Dr. Giridhar Mallya, a family practice physician and senior policy officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania does not make state funding available to public schools to deal with lead.
To spur districts to test anyway, The Heinz Endowments has awarded two nonprofit partners a pot of $400,000 for distributing mini-grants to schools and day care facilities for lead testing and basic infrastructure improvements. So far, about 15 to 20 school districts have requested reimbursement.
Environmental Charter School in Regent Square was among them.
Plum School District used a $5,000 grant to subsidize the cost of its testing, which school officials said in July demonstrated no Plum campuses were in danger of exceeding federal lead-level thresholds.
"We can't help everyone with everything, but our hope is to really make a dent in this issue," said Andrew Ellsworth, vice president of the Green Building Alliance, which is doling out the grants for the Endowments along with Women for a Healthy Environment, an East Liberty nonprofit that runs the Healthy Schools PA initiative.
At a small school district, testing for lead can be relatively cheap — as low as $500 per school, or $5,000 to $8,000 for a district with several campuses.
Pittsburgh Public Schools, which has 56 school sites, spent $2.5 million on testing and fixture replacements. Testing for three buildings in Allegheny Valley School District cost $5,000.
Norwin School District spent $2,200 on lead testing in March in its seven school buildings' water supply pipes, which carry water distributed by the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, district spokesman Jonathan Szish said.
"Although Norwin school district's buildings are recently renovated or new, the administration believed that proactive testing would safeguard the school district given all the issues that were occurring in neighboring school districts," Szish said.
The samples collected for the testing, which also checked for copper and coliform, found that "none of the results were at a level where imminent or immediate action is required," Szish said.
Doesn't 'end with water'
The scant data available about where lead dangers are most concentrated makes enacting solutions that much harder.
The Endowments is developing a potential project with local universities that would create a comprehensive database mapping the region's lead-laden private service lines — the stretches of piping typically extending from sidewalks to homes, said Andrew McElwaine, senior program director of environmental programs at The Heinz Endowments and former president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.
"This has been a historic priority for us," McElwaine said. He noted that serious lead threats persist more than three decades after Teresa Heinz co-founded the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning in the 1980s.
When it comes to schools, typically the source of lead contamination isn't the water supply or piping, but rather brass or bronze plumbing fixtures that go unused for long stretches of time. That means new buildings could be in just as much danger as older structures. Manufacturers were permitted to use lead-based bronze and brass in plumbing fixtures until 2014.
In some cases, adjacent sinks in the same room have produced drastically different results of contamination — which is why experts advise against spot-checking and urge schools to sample every fixture.
"It's a knotty problem, and it's not going to end with water," Ellsworth said.
Lead-based paint is an even more concerning issue plaguing homes, schools and day care centers each time children turn a lead-laden door knob or ingest dust particles falling from paint-chipped walls, McElwaine said.
"Probably the most easily preventable childhood health threat is lead, and we have so much more to do," McElwaine continued. "We want to get to a point where we're addressing the causes for the problems, and not just testing for the symptoms."
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.