New lead testing requirements for schools potential burden for districts

September 1, 2018

Students won’t be the only ones facing tests when they go back to school this year.

Pennsylvania school districts are going to have to test their drinking water for lead.

Under an amendment to the state’s school code that was part of the new state budget, districts that find lead levels over the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will have to come up with a plan to make sure no child or adult is exposed to it and provide other sources of drinking water.

Or they can not test at all and just talk about it.

That’s because the amendment to the school code does not require testing, and says those that do not test for lead levels would have to discuss lead issues in school facilities at a public meeting instead.

That’s why Stephanie Wein, who runs the water program at PennEnvironment, said the new rules don’t go far enough. Lead is a dangerous 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.

“We were of course gratified that legislators are finally taking seriously the pervasive threat of lead in school drinking water,” she said, adding that the requirements are not enough.

“It’s at most a nod to the fact we have a problem,” she said.

The ambiguity in the law recently caused Highlands assistant Superintendent Monique Mawhinney to call it “unclear.” But she said her district, which last tested its water two years ago, will do testing, which the school board is expected to vote on approving when it meets Monday.

“Our educators need clarity,” Wein said. “They want to do right by students. They don’t have clear guidance.”

There are no federal regulations limiting lead in school drinking water and no requirements for testing any school system on a municipal water supply, Wein said. Pennsylvania previously had no requirements for schools to address lead in drinking water.

Legislation from state Rep. Karen Boback, R-Luzerne, that would clearly require testing was not brought up for a vote. Although what got put into the school code is “weakened,” Boback sees it as a start, and she will continue to advocate for measures with more teeth, a spokeswoman for Boback said.

Wein said Boback’s bill has broad, bipartisan support with 70 cosponsors. It would require testing every two years.

“Pennsylvania is an old state with old municipal buildings, old schools and old pipes. The Northeast is one of the worst regions for lead in school drinking water,” Wein said. “Where testing has happened, upward of 40 percent of school districts found elevated levels.”

The Fox Chapel Area School District did lead testing in 2017 at a cost of about $15,000, spokeswoman Bonnnie Berzonski said. Problems were found in classroom sinks at Fairview, Hartwood and O’Hara elementary schools.

Repairs, which consisted of replacing faucets and water supply lines, cost about $2,500, she said.

The district “is in full compliance with the EPA action limits as of the final testing in the fall of 2017,” she said. “In our continuing efforts to ensure the safety of all students and staff, the district has recently requested another round of lead testing for this fall to ensure that we are still in good standing and below the EPA action limits.”

But Wein said the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion is too high. While no level of lead is safe, the recommendation is 5 ppb.

“The EPA itself says 15 ppb is not a health-based standard. It’s a building code guidance,” Wein said. “We shouldn’t be referring to that non-scientific, non-health based standard for schools.”

Most schools use the 15 ppb threshold because they see it on the EPA’s website.

“Who can blame them?” Wein said.

In early 2017, the Allegheny Valley School District found high lead levels in water at Colfax Upper Elementary School. While that testing was done less than two years ago, district spokeswoman Jan Zastawniak said the district will test its schools again in the 2018-19 school year to establish a regular testing routine.

She could not say when the testing will be done, or how much it might cost the district.

Pittsburgh Public Schools replaced about a dozen drinking fountains in its schools during the summer of 2016 because they tested positive for elevated levels of lead. The school tested all of its more than 2,300 drinking fountains, sinks and other plumbing fixtures for lead that summer. The district spent $2.5 million on the testing and installing new fixtures.

Cost is a concern, with some school officials calling the requirement yet another “unfunded mandate.”

The Derry Area School District tested its water last year and is in the process of testing already for this school year, Superintendent Eric Curry said.

“We’re trying to be proactive with regards to this,” Curry said. “If we find we have a concern with lead in the water, we would be providing alternate drinking water sources and figuring out how to remediate the problem.”

Curry said last year’s tests did find some elevated lead levels in a science lab sink at the district’s middle school complex. They found a valve had been shut off, causing water to lay in pipes. Once the valve was opened and the pipes flushed, the levels fell.

Curry also did not know what the cost of more testing will be, and he said the mounting state requirements and their cost is concerning.

“We’re pushing 30 years since our last renovation,” he said. “A lot of the materials that were used back during those days are what’s creating a lot of the problem. We have a lot of old infrastructure here.”

Kiski Area got a $15,000 grant that covered testing and remediation, said Jim Perlik, director of buildings and grounds. The testing in March found issues in sinks and ice machines at the high school. Fixtures were cleaned or replaced, and filters were installed on the ice machines.

Perlik said Kiski Area used the 5 ppb limit.

He attributed the high readings to places where there wasn’t a lot of water flow, and water sits.

Since the testing was done this year, Perlik wasn’t sure if Kiski Area would test again in the 2018-19 school year.

“If the code says we’re supposed to, we will,” he said. “We haven’t talked about it.”

Update hourly