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.
Here’s what we found when it comes to lead and radon testing:
Choose a school district
Based on the records we received, it appears that Baldwin-Whitehall, Bethel Park, and Plum Borough school districts have never tested any buildings for lead or radon. Each of those school districts includes buildings constructed before 1978, which means they’re likely to contain both lead-based paint and lead pipes. Baldwin-Whitehall did not respond to requests for comment, while Bethel Park and Plum school districts said they had no statement to give.
It’s important to note that when districts did conduct testing, they often did so only in select rooms or buildings.
For example, the last time the Pittsburgh school district conducted radon tests was in 2006 and 2007, but they only tested certain areas at Linden, Concord and Colfax elementary schools. No problems were detected at Linden or Colfax, and the district says the elevated radon levels detected at Concord were remediated in subsequent renovations.
However, the company that conducted the radon tests at Linden and Concord noted, “These tests were not done in accordance to the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] Protocols” because doors and windows were left open during the testing.” The recommended retesting has never been conducted.
We found that just because a district tested, that didn’t necessarily mean they took corrective action or informed parents of their findings.
The North Allegheny School District detected elevated radon levels in both Carson and Ingomar middle schools in 2003 (the only two buildings that were tested), but provided no documentation of corrective actions taken. It’s possible that renovations done in both buildings in 2005 addressed the issue, but according to the documents provided, no follow-up tests have been conducted in those buildings to ensure that radon levels are no longer elevated. They tested the water in numerous school buildings for lead in 2015, and although no levels above EPA limits were detected, numerous fountains had a lead content above zero. The highest level detected was 10.8 parts per billion. The district provided no documentation of corrective actions taken and declined to comment.
Some districts that haven’t tested let us know that they have taken other precautionary steps.
Although Pine-Richland School District has never tested for lead-based paint, they note that all district buildings have been “remodeled and repainted within the last 20 years.” This doesn’t eliminate the possibility of lead-based paint exposure, but it does make it less likely.
The North Hills School District stated that it “completely renovated or built all of its school buildings since 1998 under building codes that did not allow lead in water piping and pipe solder or lead in paints,” and as such, they have not conducted any lead testing. The Upper St. Clair School District similarly stated, “Since all of our school buildings were renovated since 1999, all materials that were used in the various renovations were lead-free.”
Although the Shaler Area School District hasn’t tested for lead in the water, the Hampton Shaler Water Authority has tested water from one randomly selected water fountain in each building in the district. Those test results, posted online in July 2016, all found lead levels below the EPA’s municipal water limit of 15 parts per billion.
How did we get here?
In 1988, Congress passed the Lead Contamination Control Act, which required states to set up protocols for lead testing and remediation of drinking water in schools and early child-care centers. In 1996, a federal appeals court struck it down, ruling that it violated the Tenth Amendment by taking matters out of states’ control.
Although the EPA offers guidelines on testing for lead and radon, it’s up to states to enact and enforce their own laws. Twenty years later, Pennsylvania has yet to pass any such laws.
One potential reason: If high levels of radon or lead are detected, the clean-up can get extremely expensive.
“Schools may not take the option to test or might be concerned about testing because they don’t have the budget to fix the problems,” explains Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, the executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, a Pittsburgh nonprofit.
That could be why few local districts have taken advantage of free radon testing kits that were offered to all schools in the state this year. Women for a Healthy Environment noted similar apathy to its offer to help schools test their drinking water for lead at no cost.
‘Kids aren’t just tiny adults’
While issues like lead and radon in schools can have serious effects on the long-term health of teachers and administrators, children are especially at risk. Research indicates that while children’s bodies, immune systems and brains are developing, they’re more vulnerable to permanent damage from exposure to environmental toxins than adults are.
“It’s important to remember that kids aren’t just tiny adults,” says Naccarati-Chapkis. “They’re still growing and developing, so pound-for-pound they’re drinking more water, breathing more air and absorbing much more of whatever is in their environment.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics put out a statement in June saying there is “no identified threshold or safe level of lead” for children, and calling for stricter regulations in schools and childcare facilities. They urge schools to keep water lead concentrations below 1 part per billion — significantly lower than the 20 parts per billion level Pittsburgh Public Schools used as its standard for replacing water fountains this summer. The district also installed 300 water coolers in 67 Pittsburgh schools at a cost of $1.5 million.
Water isn’t the only way kids are exposed to lead. It’s actually lead-based paint that is the leading cause of lead poisoning in Pennsylvania youth.
Kids don’t have to eat paint chips to be exposed. In areas where paint gets scraped, especially around windows and doors, it wears off in the form of dust. That dust can be breathed in or swallowed. The dust can also seep into soil surrounding homes and schools.
The risks of long-term radon exposure are serious, too. Radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking. Scientists estimate that about 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year are related to radon, and Pennsylvania’s radon levels are among the highest in the country. Because it’s an invisible, odorless gas, the only way to detect radon is to test regularly.
A ‘really dreadful’ dilemma
“The poorest children always have the schools in the worst conditions,” says Claire Barnett, the executive director of the national Healthy Schools Network. She says because no federal funds are provided directly to schools for environmental work, districts depend on state and municipal funds.
This means that districts with wealthier tax bases are more likely to test and remediate, while poorer districts are forced to prioritize other critical issues — like subsidized lunch and special education programs.
“It’s a really dreadful balancing act,” she says, “because they’re all equally important issues.”
Emily Weise-King, whose 6-year-old son, Remy, attends Colfax Elementary School in Squirrel Hill, finds this prospect upsetting. “Geez, how do you prioritize between feeding kids that can’t afford to have lunch versus testing for lead and radon?” she asks. “Why wouldn’t you want to protect all of the children, instead of just the children who live in a rich neighborhood?”
As with many parents we spoke to, Weise-King says she trusts the school districts have students’ best interests at heart. But she believes laws should require schools to test for environmental threats, and funding to remediate is critical.
Public schools in the area are strapped for cash, said Katy Rank Lev, the mother of three. "I’m really sad that my kids’ schools are having to choose between librarians and lead health. We don’t have a full-time school nurse — I don’t know many public schools that do — and we don’t even have a full-time librarian. She comes once a week.
“I wouldn’t want to have to be the administrator making those decisions.”
What can we do about any of this?
"I tend to feel really powerless about all of this,” Rank Lev says. “It’s overwhelming.”
She’s not alone. She and other parents said that in the face of all the other serious issues facing their kids’ schools — from concerns about gun violence and discriminatory bathroom rules to standardized testing and a lack of arts funding — it can feel overwhelming to consider taking on another issue.
It isn’t all hopeless, though.
Increased concern over lead in drinking water has led to the introduction of the federal Lead Testing in School and Child Care Drinking Water Act of 2016 (S.2830) in the Senate. While the proposed law wouldn’t require states to test, it would give the EPA grant money to give to states that wish to implement testing programs.
Some states are taking action. A handful require radon testing in schools; 10 states and Washington, D.C., have enacted “Green Cleaning” laws, requiring schools to use non-toxic cleaning supplies; and, in September, New York became the first state to require all schools test drinking water for lead.
In Pennsylvania, a bill was recently introduced in the state Senate (SB17) as part of a lead package that would not only require schools to test for lead in paint, dust, soil and drinking water, but would also create a superfund schools could access to help cover the cost of clean-up. This lead package can’t pass unless the Legislature comes back into session before the end of the year, which is unlikely; it would have to be introduced again in the 2017-18 session in order to have a chance.
A Green Cleaning bill (HB1505) for schools is under review by the House Education Committee. A bill that would require schools to test for radon every 5 years was also introduced in the Pennsylvania House in 2013 (HB915), but it hasn’t progressed.
Women for a Healthy Environment is eager to provide parents, teachers and students with resources to help make schools safer through its Healthy Schools Pennsylvania program.
“These are bipartisan issues that know no boundaries, frankly,” Naccarati-Chapkis said. “These issues are prevalent in all communities across the state, regardless of geography or income, and we need to be thinking about protecting the health of all children in all of our communities.”
Emily Weise-King says that while she and her husband could move to another school district if they felt Remy was unsafe at school, not everyone has that luxury — and it isn’t something anyone should have to do.
“We’re required to send our kids to school, so the kids’ schools should be required to be safe,” she says. “That seems pretty straightforward to me.”