(The Center Square) – Aging pipes in Pennsylvania’s public schools have sparked a bipartisan push in the General Assembly to fund water upgrades and remove lead pipes considered a threat to student health.
“Every day, many children and staff unknowingly drink dangerous levels of lead in their school water. This is clearly unacceptable,” Sen. Devlin Robinson, R-Pittsburgh, said at a news conference Wednesday.
Robinson, along with Sens. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, and John Kane, D-Chester, proposed Senate Bill 986 to create a grant program to test water for lead and replace water wells with new ones with lead filter systems.
“Pennsylvania is particularly vulnerable to unsafe drinking water due to our state’s aging infrastructure,” Robinson said. “Because many school buildings are currently more than 50 years old, our state does not have regular requirements for testing, mitigation and reporting of lead in school drinking water.”
The legislation would give priority to schools built before 2014 and schools that include pre-kindergarten. The Department of Education would provide up to $10 million each year for three years for pipe replacement.
“This is happening in every corner of the commonwealth,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment.
He cited studies that found 91% of schools in Pennsylvania that tested their drinking water for lead contained lead, and 98% of schools in the Philadelphia School District.
“No lead level is a safe lead level,” said Dr. Banku Jairath of Hershey Medical Center. “Lead levels in your body can also lead to anti-social and criminal behavior. So if you use any data on lead crises in U.S. history, criminal activity follows that, a wave of criminal activity after that… primary prevention is the best answer.”
Law 39 of 2018 required schools to conduct tests for lead and report the data to the Ministry of Education. However, because this was not a mandate, many schools did not conduct testing.
Haywood, who visited Flint, Michigan in 2018 when it made national headlines over lead-contaminated water, said the legislation was inspired by that trip.
“It is a fulfillment of visiting Flint that we can place our young people in schools where the water they drink is safe,” Haywood said.
Although Pennsylvania is not alone in its lead-related problems, it has stood out. In January, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a lead pipe replacement initiative focused on 40 locations in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Wisconsin.
“The problem of lead contamination in our schools’ drinking water cannot be ignored,” Kane said.
If the bill becomes law, Pennsylvania will join a minority of states that require schools to test their water for lead.