Officials in Pittsburgh on Wednesday called for the passage of state legislation that would require school districts to test their drinking water for lead.
Legislation from state Rep. Karen Boback, R-Luzerne, introduced Wednesday would also drastically reduce a statewide threshold for lead levels in water at schools and require districts to disclose test results to the public.
The state goes by an Environmental Protection Agency threshold of 15 parts per billion for safe drinking water. The bill would drop the threshold to 5 parts per billion.
“The very places where our children go to grow and learn, they often end up drinking water that can harm their ability to do just that, to learn and develop,” said Ashleigh Deemer, Western Pennsylvania director for the environmental group PennEnvironment. “This is happening in every corner of the commonwealth, from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and from Lancaster to Erie.”
PennEnvironment released a report giving Pennsylvania an “F” for failing to require lead testing and remediation in schools.
Lead is a neurotoxin to which children are especially susceptible. It can damage the brain and lead to development, learning, hearing and speech problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Even small exposures to lead can affect attention, hyperactivity and irritability,” said City Councilwoman Deb Gross, who serves on the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority board of directors. “We’re lucky to have beautiful and historic school buildings in the city of Pittsburgh especially, but we need to test the water from every water fountain regularly and we need to be sure that those water fountains are either filtered or replaced so that we are not exposing our kids to lead in schools at school time.”
Advocates said the problem is easily resolved. They said testing and installation of water filters in schools where lead exceeds the limit would be worth the cost.
Pittsburgh Public Schools replaced about a dozen drinking fountains in 2016 because they tested positive for elevated lead levels. The school tested all of its more than 2,300 drinking fountains, sinks and other plumbing fixtures for lead and spent $2.5 million on the testing and installing new fixtures.
It cost the Fox Chapel Area School District about $17,500 for testing and remediation after high lead levels were discovered in elementary classroom sinks.
Dr. Karen Hacker, who heads the Allegheny County Health Department, noted that kids in the region are also exposed to lead in paint, dust and soil.
“We need as a county to be very aware of the fact that there’s a potential for lead exposure in so much of our old infrastructure,” she said. “We can reduce lead exposure by doing some simple things, testing for lead, replacing those water fountains when it’s needed. We really do believe that we can get to a lead-safe, lead-free Pittsburgh and Allegheny County and reduce our exposure to our children in particular for lead from all these sources.”