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Pittsburgh's history of lead in our water, paint, and soil continues to have enormous repercussions for the area's public health. Hidden Poison is a series on lead problems and solutions, reported by public media partners 90.5 WESA News, Allegheny Front, PublicSource, and Keystone Crossroads. Read more at our website: hiddenpoison.org.

Report Gives PA An ‘F’ In Lead Contamination Prevention

Katie Meyer
Pennsylvania Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) addresses a small crowd about the commonwealth's failing grade in a new lead protection report by the Public Interest Research Group.

Pennsylvania gets a failing grade for its efforts to protect children from high levels of lead in the water at their schools, according to a report released two weeks ago from Public Interest Research Groups, a national federation of left-leaning, independent nonprofits.

It advises—among other things—that schools install water filters as soon as possible while working on longer-term solutions.

The group said that eventually, old lead pipes will have to be completely removed, which is extremely costly. Past efforts by lawmakers to address the lead issue have made little progress in recent years.

In a review of 16 states, the PIRG gave 12—including Pennsylvania—a failing grade, meaning the commonwealth has “failed to establish any meaningful laws or policy” to reduce lead in school water.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, of Philadelphia, was part of a cohort of democrats who introduced a five-bill package last session to deal with the lead. It didn’t move far, but Hughes said the bills will all be back this session.

“To have an 'F' requires a response,” he said. “To have an 'F' requires that legislation and funding be moved to address this problem.”

Hughes’s bill would establish a $500 million so-called “superfund” to fix lead-ridden plumbing. Other bills would create requirements for lead testing in daycares and schools; require an option for lead testing in property sales; and launch a task force to study the issue.

Hughes said funding would probably come from a combination of local, state and federal money.

Hughes cited Flint, Michigan’s high-profile water contamination case that ultimately drew national attention to a local lead issue, and brought in a state Department of Health report from 2014 that showed 20 cities across Pennsylvania are home to children whose blood tested even higher for lead than Flint residents’ did.

“All across the state of Pennsylvania,” he said, describing the areas where lead impacts children. "Big urban cities, small rural communities.”

A spokesman for Hughes said state legislatures will probably have to leave the purchase of individual water filters to the schools that can afford it.

Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Deb Gross announced Tuesday an effort to have private foundations and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority purchase lead-filtering water pitchers for an estimated 25,000 local families with children under age 6.

Pittsburgh Public Schools voluntarily spent almost $2.5 million to test and replace several faucets and fountains with lead-filtering models in August. School Board President Regina Holley said sending the refillable pitchers home with all students would be ideal.