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Pennsylvania Senators ask for $30M to test schools’ water supply for lead

Aging pipes in Pennsylvania schools have sparked a bipartisan push in the General Assembly to help districts identify and replace lead-tainted water fountains.

“Every day, many children and staff unknowingly drink dangerous amounts of lead in their school’s water. This is clearly unacceptable,” Sen. Devlin Robinson, R-Pittsburgh, said at a Wednesday press conference.

Robinson, along with Sens. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, and John Kane, D-Chester, have proposed Senate Bill 986 to remove drinking fountains in school buildings where lead contamination has reached dangerous levels with bottle filling stations or new fountains equipped with filters.

The bill, which establishes the Safe School Drinking Water Fund, would require the testing and remediations to be complete by Jan. 1, 2026.

“Pennsylvania is particularly vulnerable to unsafe drinking water due to our state’s aging infrastructure,” Robinson said. “As many school buildings are more than 50 years old right now, our state doesn’t have regular requirements for testing, mitigation, and reporting for lead in school drinking water.”

The legislation gives priority status to schools built before 2014 and schools that include pre kindergarten classes. Up to $10 million would be awarded by the Department of Education each year for three years.

“This is happening in every corner of the commonwealth,” PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur said.

He cited studies that found 91% of schools in Pennsylvania that tested for lead in their drinking water had lead present, and 98% of schools in the Philadelphia School District.

“No lead level is a safe lead level,” Dr. Banku Jairath of Hershey Medical Center said. “Lead levels in your body can also lead to antisocial and criminal behaviors. So if you pull up any data of lead crisis that has happened in US history, it is followed by criminal activity, a wave of criminal activity after…primary prevention is the best answer.”

Act 39 of 2018 encouraged schools to test for lead and share the data with the Department of Education, but because it wasn’t a mandate, many schools did not test.

Haywood, who visited Flint, Michigan in 2018 when it made national headlines for lead-contaminated water, said the legislation was inspired by that trip.

“It is a fulfillment of the visit to Flint so that we will be able to have our young people in schools where the water that they drink is safe,” Haywood said.

Though Pennsylvania is not alone in lead-related problems, it has stood out. In January, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a lead pipe replacement initiative that focused on 40 places in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.

“The issue of lead contamination in our schools’ drinking water is something that cannot be ignored,” Kane said.

If the bill becomes law, Pennsylvania will join 19 other states that require schools to test for lead in their water.

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