Lawmakers are again attempting to limit lead in Washington schools’ drinking water by requiring school districts to fix or replace fixtures that leach the toxin. 

This is the third year in a row that state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, has introduced a measure aimed at curbing children’s exposure to lead. 

In 2019, legislators never held a hearing. Last session, the bill seemed poised to pass after receiving unanimous support in the House, but there was a deadlock in the Senate after schools pushed back, saying it amounted to an unfunded mandate.

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This year’s measure, which is sponsored by 21 Democratic lawmakers but no Republicans, is similar to its predecessors. House Bill 1139 would direct public and private schools to test all water outlets — including drinking fountains, but also bathroom sinks and those used to prepare lunch — in schools built before 2016. Schools would need to test again every five years. And schools would also be on the hook to post test results on a public website — and fix outlets with high lead levels.

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“What’s vitally important is that we have, for the first time ever, a health-based standard for what is acceptable in school water,” said Pollet, who teaches at the University of Washington School of Public Health. “It’s just morally reprehensible to say we don’t want to take action on this.”

Pollet said last year’s debate was marred by misperceptions about how schools would afford testing and repairs. 

The legislation tasks the state Department of Health (DOH) with conducting the tests; schools can also contract with private testing companies, but this is often much more expensive. If districts find a water source that needs repairs, district officials would be responsible for requesting a grant from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to pay for it. In its budget request, OSPI requested $3 million over two years for such repairs. 

Lead is often found in old paint and pipes. In schools, lead can leach from brass valves and fixtures inside drinking fountains and sinks, said Molly Codding, a master’s of public health student at the UW who worked on the bill

No amount of lead exposure is safe. Lead is poisonous for everyone, but it is particularly dangerous for young children whose brains are still developing. The toxin can cause an array of problems, such as damage to the nervous system and permanent cognitive or growth delays. 

Washington doesn’t require schools to test drinking water, but many do anyway. Voluntary testing among nearly 200 of the state’s elementary schools has shown that 97% of schools had at least one faucet with a lead concentration of over one part per billion, the recommended threshold for safe drinking water according to The American Academy of Pediatrics. 

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The new legislation’s standards are weaker than that recommended by the medical professionals: Under the proposal, taps would have to be fixed or replaced if they exceed 5 parts per billion. This standard is the same as that of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s for bottled water. 

In an updated analysis of DOH data conducted by Codding and her colleagues, which includes 551 Washington elementary schools tested from 2017 to 2020, 82% had at least one outlet above the legislation’s threshold. 

Some schools tested faucets that registered at levels hundreds of times the legislation’s proposed rate. For example, Neah Bay Elementary in Clallam County logged at least one faucet with a concentration of 1,780 parts per billion. Elementary schools in Auburn and Northshore school districts also were among the schools with the highest lead levels.

It’s unlikely that water is already contaminated when it flows into school buildings, Codding said. Instead, lead usually comes from individual school sinks or fountains fitted with old or decrepit fixtures. In her analysis, Codding found that 17% of water sources in Washington elementaries had elevated concentrations, suggesting that only a handful of faucets would need to be replaced. Such repairs average $3,271 per school building, state estimates show, or roughly $375 per faucet. 

Codding’s findings highlight the importance of testing all sources of water on school grounds, not a subset or just those used to drink from or to fill water bottles. 

“We want to know if the water used to boil your spaghetti, does that have lead in it?” Codding said. 

The measure was heard by the House Committee on Education on Jan. 26 and passed out of committee on Feb. 11.