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Lead testing isn’t required for Pa. school drinking fountains. Lawmakers want to change that.

Water shoots up in an arc from a water fountain faucet.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

State lawmakers want to set aside $30 million to help schools replace outdated water fountains with those that filter out lead and other harmful contaminants.

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.

While current Pennsylvania law encourages schools to test for lead annually, districts aren’t required to do so. Schools that don’t test must discuss their reasoning at a public meeting.

“There's probably many more schools with dangerous levels that we don't even know about, particularly because — let's face it — Pennsylvania's an old state, and our infrastructure is pretty old,” said state Sen. Devlin Robinson of Bridgeville. “So that means our schools are old and a lot of them have been built using lead pipes.”

The Allegheny County Republican introduced legislation last week to create the $30 million Safe School Drinking Water Fund. The bill also requires schools to replace all outdated water fountains with filtered ones by 2026.

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A 2021 report by Women for a Healthy Environment found that, of 65 Pennsylvania school districts surveyed, 91% found lead in their water.

Pennsylvania requires schools testing only 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.

In a ranking of lead policies throughout the country earlier this year, researchers with the advocacy group PennEnvironment gave Pennsylvania failing grades for what they said were inadequate measures.

“The testing just doesn't always protect people properly,” said PennEnvironmental executive director David Masur. “So it's better to move to what we call filter-first and just commit to taking out all those old drinking fountains.”

Masur said the best way for school districts to prevent lead contamination is through remediation rather than testing, which often can bring about variable results.

Pittsburgh Public Schools already has begun this work. The district started rolling out a long-term project to systematically replace outdated water fountains in 2016, after 3% of its taps — including 141 sinks and water fountains — tested above the safe levels.

Additional testing of 2,364 water fixtures during the 2022-2023 school year found that 2.4% of samples showed lead levels above 15 ppb. The district said any faucet or fountain that showed lead levels exceeding that level was immediately shut off and signage to prohibit usage was posted.

The affected drinking water fountains were subsequently “taken out of service, and/or replaced with new filtered chilled-water fountains,” the district said.

As of August 2023, 98% of all water fountains districtwide had been outfitted with high-efficiency filters.

“What Pittsburgh's doing right now is probably the model,” Masur said.

The state legislation would allocate $10 million yearly, for three years, to schools to do the same, with preference given to those built before 2014 or housing early childhood programs.

Corrected: May 6, 2024 at 1:22 PM EDT
Originally, this story misstated the number of fixtures that tested positive for lead in 2016.
Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.