New legislation could require Pa. schools to test for lead in water. Here’s what you need to know.

The Pennsylvania State Capitol building.

The Pennsylvania State Capitol building.

Schools could be required to test for lead in all drinking and cooking water if new legislation in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives advances. Rep. Karen Boback, a Republican who represents Wyoming County, introduced the bill in February. Boback held a press conference Wednesday to announce the bill, which has garnered bipartisan support.

Boback wrote in a memo that the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, inspired the legislation. She also cited a ranking by PennEnvironment, a prominent environmental advocacy group in Pennsylvania, which gave the state an ‘F’ for levels of lead in school drinking water. PennEnvironment has publicly supported the legislation.

Here’s what the bill says:

  • Both public and private schools in Pennsylvania have to test all water outlets used for drinking and cooking by June 19, 2019. Testing must continue to take place every two years after that.
  • The tests have to show lead concentration in water is at or below 5 parts per billion [ppb]. While there is no safe level of lead, the Environmental Protection Agency has defined water with more than 15 ppb of lead as particularly dangerous.
  • If faucets in a school test above 5 ppb, the school has to take those faucets out of service within 24 hours; take remedial steps, which may include replacing pipes, using filters or taking the faucet out of service; notify students, parents and school staff; and send results of the lead test and a remedial plan to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection [DEP].

The bill also mandates that the DEP and Department of Education draw up more specific guidelines for lead testing in schools.

Here’s why this matters:

Prior to this bill, there was no statewide mandate that schools had to test for lead in their water. A PublicSource investigation from 2016 found that some districts in Allegheny County had never tested for lead in the water, in part because they didn’t have to. Another PublicSource story found that testing was spotty among the county’s charter schools.

It’s also significant that this bill sets an action limit of 5 ppb, much lower than the EPA’s 15 ppb standard, which the state DEP also uses. Boback said on Wednesday that 5 ppb was the "standard for bottled water" and that as of now she's "not wavering on this." There's a chance that figure could change, though, as the bill is still in its early stages and she'd want the EPA and DEP to weigh in on the bill, she said.

For context, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, long plagued by lead contamination in its water supply, is still struggling to meet the DEP’s 15 ppb standard.

Boback added that she doesn't consider the bill "an unfunded mandate" because schools should be testing for lead in their water anyway.

Pittsburgh-area officials, including Democrat Reps. Dom Costa and Jake Wheatley have co-sponsored the bill. The bill is currently in the House education committee. Ebony Pugh, a spokesperson for Pittsburgh Public Schools, did not respond to a request for comment.

J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0069 or by email at dale@publicsource.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker. He can be reached securely at PGP: bit.ly/2ig07qL