PA Schools Aren't Required To Test For Lead Or Radon, So Many Pittsburgh-Area Districts Don't
What was supposed to be a routine visit to the pediatrician with little Oren resulted in a finding that sent Katy Rank Lev and her husband, Corey, into a frenzy.
Their 1-year-old had lead in his blood.
Would it affect his growth? His brain development? And where could it be coming from?
Their Point Breeze home was built in 1900. Because of its age, they realized its paint could contain lead and that the contractors renovating it could be stirring up lead-laced dust.
They asked the workers to take precautions to control the dust, and they wiped down all the walls, top to bottom, with a detergent that's supposed to minimize lead dust.
It wasn't the first environmental threat they had to fight within their home.
Prior to moving in, they discovered high radon levels in some rooms. Radon exposure has been linked to lung cancer, so they spent about $850 to install a radon mitigation system.
Given all the steps they’ve taken to make their home safe for their three sons — 7-year-old Miles, 4-year-old Felix, and Oren, who is now 2 — Rank Lev is shocked to learn the boys could be exposed to the toxins in the other place they spend most of their time.
School. One hundred and eighty days a year. Six to seven hours a day. The place they go to learn, socialize and grow.
Yet in Pennsylvania, there isn’t a single law requiring public school districts to test for environmental toxins like radon in the air, lead in the paint, or lead in the drinking water if they use a municipal water supply. As a result, many schools don’t regularly conduct testing, and some have never tested at all.
Rank Lev says she finds this “really surprising and upsetting.” Oren isn’t in school yet, but her other two sons are. Over the summer, Pittsburgh Public Schools, which includes her older sons’ Montessori school, tested drinking water in buildings throughout the district and replaced a number of water fountains after finding elevated lead levels. “I guess I just assumed they’d be testing for other things, too, because when we bought this house a year ago we had to test for lead and radon and do all kinds of paperwork about it.”
Parents with kids in school districts throughout Allegheny County expressed similar disbelief.
“I’ve had to sign a disclosure about lead and have radon testing done at every house I’ve ever even rented,” says PJ Patella-Rey, a Mt. Lebanon stepfather of a fifth grader and a ninth grader. His wife Jessie is expecting a baby on Christmas Eve. They’ve been preparing their own old house for the baby by touching up peeling paint in case it contains lead. Their basement also houses a radon mitigation system.
“Given the level of awareness at this point about how harmful lead can be, and the fact that this has been part of the public conversation for so long, I would have just assumed, to some degree, that this stuff was being done in schools,” he said.
Which school districts are testing?
In May, PublicSource filed open record requests with Pittsburgh Public Schools and the 10 Allegheny County school districts with the most students enrolled to determine which districts are voluntarily testing for environmental toxins, how often they’re doing so, and what steps they’re taking to correct problems.
The 11 school districts we received records from account for about 70,736 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. That’s 51 percent of K-12 students in the county in the 2015-16 school year, and it includes both urban and suburban districts.