This story was updated at 7 p.m. Jan. 15, 2017.
We hear it again and again: Pittsburgh has a lead problem. There are many unknowns regarding how it will be fixed. We’re told authorities are doing what they can.
But are they? And is it only the water utility who has the responsibility to monitor lead exposure and take action?
While there is ambiguity about testing practices and how to mitigate lead exposure, one thing is clear: Health experts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all agree no lead level is safe — especially for the developing minds and bodies of children.
Yet in Pennsylvania, schools operating within public water systems are not required to test for the contaminant, and many don’t.
PublicSource recently reported that many of the school districts that educate more than half of Allegheny County students are not testing for lead (or radon) regularly or at all.
The case is much the same for publicly funded charter schools.
These institutions are required to maintain their own facilities. The testing and remediation they have done, if any, has been varied.
PublicSource checked in with the 24 brick-and-mortar charter schools in Allegheny County about whether they have tested their water for lead. Nearly 7,000 students attend these charter schools.
Of the charters contacted, two tested all fixtures in their buildings and now ensure that students have lead-free water to drink.
Several schools or their building landlords have tested, and some are awaiting test results or a kit to conduct the lead testing.
Two of the charter schools confirmed they have not tested and have no plans to do so, and three schools did not respond to our inquiries.
Testing is voluntary
The Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] district inspects the facilities of its 10 approved charters schools annually, but the inspection does not include water quality testing.
“The charter schools are responsible for maintaining their facilities. The testing that we did was voluntary – there’s no requirement for testing,” said Ebony Pugh, PPS Public Information Officer.
The general public is used to seeing the 15 ppb/L measurement as the EPA action limit. The EPA school guidelines, which are voluntary, recommend intervention if lead levels reach or exceed 20 ppb/250mL — equivalent to 5 ppb/L. Guidelines for acceptable lead levels are set above zero to make compliance more feasible. If we’re just talking about what is best for your health, the lead level goal is zero — according to the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule.
The EPA’s recent revisions to the rule, motivated by the water crisis in Flint and other cities, suggest making the school guidelines mandatory.
PPS invested more than $380,000 in surveying and testing for lead in its facilities’ drinking and cooking water over the summer. Where the district found lead levels at or above 20 ppb, they removed or replaced the fixtures, including 14 water fountains, and left fixtures with levels below 20 ppb in place. The district also installed 300 filtered water coolers and filling stations in 67 Pittsburgh schools at a cost of $2 million.
The Environmental Charter School [ECS] at Frick Park also voluntarily tested all the school’s drinking and cooking fixtures in October. Unlike PPS, though, ECS took action when lead levels were within the EPA guideline.
ECS’s results were generally good, but revealed three kitchen faucets with levels between 3.41 and 4.81 parts per billion (ppb).
The school decided it will replace the fixtures over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend anyway. Prior to that, ECS Director of Sustainability and Facilities Katie Lockley instructed food service staff to flush the fixtures for 30 seconds before use. The whole process cost ECS $1662, taken out of its annual budget.
“We are so below the level where we’d need to flush. That’s just us going above and beyond what we need to do,” Lockley said.
What each charter school has or hasn’t done
Here is a breakdown of what we learned from other area charter schools:
- Propel Schools, which operates 11 charters, tested one drinking fountain in each of its nine Allegheny County school buildings in September. The lead levels from a drinking water fountain at Propel Andrew Street High School in Munhall was slightly elevated at 4.8 ppb. Other fountains tested at 1 to 1.8 ppb.
- Provident Charter School tested its water over the summer while reviving its long-vacant building and provides bottled water for all its students and staff.
- Young Scholars of Western PA Charter School and City Charter High School have not tested and do not have plans to test. A representative from Young Scholars of McKeesport emailed on Friday, saying that the school has not tested for lead in its drinking water but it is in their plan to test soon.
- Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School collected samples two weeks ago and are awaiting results; the school does not provide students with bottled or filtered water.
- The maintenance staff of Manchester Academic Charter School’s middle school, which is located at the Sarah Heinz House, has tested all water sources every few months since 2015. It complies with EPA public utility guidelines, not the more stringent, yet voluntary, EPA school guidelines. Its most recent test results revealed low levels of lead in its hot water tank. The House is in the process of installing water fountain filters advertised to remove lead. The landlord of Manchester Academic’s elementary school informed school leadership it had tested, and that lead levels were “acceptable.”
- Urban Pathways Charter School K-5 Principal Kim Fitzgerald recently sought a test kit from PWSA after realizing “on the regular inspection, [lead testing] isn’t something that’s done.” She said copper pipes and a filtration system were installed in 2012, but could not confirm whether the system reduces lead.
- Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship tested for lead in water from two fountains in October. The samples showed levels of 2.88 and 3.56 ppb per liter. The tests were conducted using EPA guidelines, but not according to the voluntary school guidelines.
- The following three did not respond to inquiries: the Hill House Passport Academy Charter, Academy Charter School and Urban Pathways 6-12.
The Environmental Charter School took into account the latest EPA suggestion, so they would be in compliance and ahead of the game if the guidelines were made mandatory or more stringent.
Young Scholars CEO and Principal Kasim Biyikli said the school has no plans to test for lead, though he recalled hearing of PPS’s summer lead testing and interventions. The safety of the school’s drinking fountains is unknown, but students who don’t bring their own water from home are still drinking from water fountains.
Ron Sofo, CEO and principal of City Charter High School, says testing and intervention should be the responsibility of the building’s landlord. Upon Sofo’s inquiry, the property manager did not provide any records of water quality testing. Still, City Charter, which leases a couple floors of a mixed-use building in downtown Pittsburgh, does not have plans to test its fixtures.
Propel Schools said it shared test results with parents in mid-December. Propel does not have plans to remove or filter the drinking water from the Andrew Street fixture. Kelly Wall, a Propel spokesperson, said: “We don’t need to because we’re well below the level of action” set by the EPA’s voluntary guidelines.
Andrew Ellsworth, vice president of the Green Building Alliance, said schools should be taking any action they can to reduce lead levels. “This is not a huge, huge cost. There aren’t that many barriers. It is something that is very doable. The goal is to have kids get access to safe, clean drinking water.”
The amount of lead in water is variable, said Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department. Its presence will depend on when it’s drawn from the tap and its temperature. “It might even depend for the individual on their nutritional status, their age at which that lead might become part of their body,” she said. (Hacker wanted to point out again that the major source of lead toxicity is lead paint, not water.)
Lockley said she hopes the work of advocates for lead-free water and buildings leads to more parents asking what schools are doing to ensure student and environmental health.
These questions “haven’t necessarily been on the tip of the tongue of Pittsburgh’s parents,” she said, “but should be because they’re ultimately related to student achievement and the long-term health of students.”
Kerry Nix is a freelance journalist in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.