Schools get 'D' for lead in drinking water 

Christian M Wade/Staff photoRep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, discusses details of legislation she filed with Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, that would require public schools and day care centers to remove lead pipes, install lead certified water filters or water filling stations, and conduct regular and transparent testing of their water, among other requirements.

BOSTON – Lead-tainted water is still pervasive in public schools, and the state hasn't devoted enough money and resources to tackle the problem.

That's according to a new report rolled out Thursday by a coalition of consumer advocates, environmental activists and lawmakers, who gave the state a "D" grade for its efforts.

"We know that most schools have at least some lead, whether it's in their old water fountains, their faucets or in the pipes," said Emma Dietz, a clean water associate with Environment Massachusetts, which co-authored the "Get The Lead Out" report. "And wherever there is lead there is risk that water will become contaminated."

More than two-thirds of 31 states surveyed for the report received failing grades, including Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont, for not doing enough to remove lead from school water, according the report co-authored by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group.

New Hampshire received a “C” for its efforts.

The District of Columbia received the highest marks, winning a B—plus.

"Several states have no requirements for schools and pre-schools to address the threat of lead," the report stated. "Of the few states with applicable laws, most follow flaws in the federal rules — relying on testing instead of prevention, and using standards that allow health-threatening levels of lead to persist in our children’s water."

Advocates used the report to press lawmakers to approve legislation to create new rules strengthening lead prevention efforts.

The proposal, filed by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, and backed by nearly 80 lawmakers would require public schools to remove lead pipes, install lead certified water filters or water filling stations, and conduct regular and transparent testing of their water.

It would also lower the regulatory limit for lead in water at those facilities to 1 part per billion, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended. The threshold is now 15 parts per billion.

"In 2019, we should not be sending our kids to school where the water they drink can damage their health," Lovely said at a briefing. "It's completely unacceptable."

Ehrlich said the report "makes it clear that we have a public health emergency here in Massachusetts damaging children’s developing brains."

"This is not something that's optional or that we can put off for another 10 years. This is a mandate for action," she said. "We already know how harmful prolonged lead exposure is, which is why we removed it from gas and paint. The evidence is clear that we need to act to remove it from school drinking water, too."

Worries about lead contamination were highlighted by the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where as many as 8,000 children under age 6 were exposed to unsafe levels of lead from 2014 to 2015 after a budget-cutting decision to switch drinking-water sources.

Gov. Charlie Baker launched a lead testing program at public schools, funded with an initial $2.75 million, in the wake of concerns generated by the Flint water crisis.

The first round of testing in 2017, conducted at more than 1,000 public schools, found a majority had at least one sample showing lead levels above the regulatory limit of 15 parts per billion, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Schools have taken steps to address cases of high lead levels and notified parents of the results, according to the agency.

In another round of testing last year, at least 162 schools that had reported lead in their drinking water submitted new water samples. Fifty-one had at least one fixture that tested higher than the state's regulatory limit on lead contamination.

Public health officials say no amount of lead in water is safe. Even low concentrations can be harmful, particularly for young children and the fetuses of pregnant women.

"Lead is a potent neurotoxin, affecting the way our kids learn and behave," Dr. Sean Palfrey, director of the lead poisoning prevention center at Boston Medical Center, told the gathering Thursday. "There is no safe level of lead for children."

Baker has proposed $30 million in his budget for the next fiscal year for testing and remediation at schools that are still struggling with contamination issues.

Advocates said Thursday that the added money and legislation, if passed, would bump the state to an "A" grade for dealing with lead contamination in schools.

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said steps have been taken in many schools to address elevated lead levels, including shutting off drinking fountains or taps, flushing pipes, installing signs at certain fixtures, and making long-term upgrades to drinking water systems.

"It's been an ongoing issue with some of the aging pipes and older water systems in many schools," he said. "Superintendents are well aware that this is a public safety issue they need to deal with, and many districts have an ongoing testing program to monitor the problem and will take faucets and bubblers out of service if needed."

More information on tests of school drinking water can be found here: https://www.mass.gov/lists/lead-in-drinking-water

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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