Washington’s public schools soon will be required to take new steps to curb children’s exposure to lead after passage of a bill that mandates schools fix or replace fixtures that leach the toxin into water sources. The bill exempts private schools from the requirement.
House Bill 1139, which cleared a final hurdle in the state Senate on a 48-0 vote on Sunday, is designed to address gaps in school-safety requirements. Until now, the state has not mandated schools test or keep records on lead levels, although some do voluntarily. The House approved the measure on a 94-4 vote on March 4. It now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.
“It is actually a model for the nation, this bill,” said state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who sponsored the bill. “So I feel quite good about it.”
The policy is a long time coming. This legislative session marks the third year in a row that Pollet has introduced a version of the bill. And its passage Sunday afternoon came just a few hours before the legislature’s cutoff to pass bills this session.
“It was down to the wire,” said Molly Codding, a master’s of public health student at the University of Washington, who worked on the bill. “Our advocates’ … testimony and their action engaging with legislators really sent a clear message that this is what the public wants.”
Schools now will be required to test water outlets — including drinking fountains, but also bathroom sinks and those used to prepare lunch — in schools built before 2016. The state Department of Health (DOH) is tasked with conducting the tests, but schools are also allowed to contract with private testing companies, which can be more expensive. They’ll need to test every five years and post results publicly on DOH’s website. Testing should begin shortly after the bill takes effect, Pollet said, barring any new or dangerous concerns related to the pandemic.
If outlets come back with high lead levels, schools have to fix or replace them. The bill provides $3 million to support this effort, plus an additional $1 million for DOH to coordinate testing.
Many school districts test their water outlets now, even though they aren’t required to do so. 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 more than one part per billion, the recommended threshold for safe drinking water according to The American Academy of Pediatrics.
The bill is less stringent. Taps would have to be fixed or replaced if they exceed 5 parts per billion; schools have six months to come up with a plan to do so. And under the legislation, schools aren’t required to immediately shut off taps unless they test higher than 15 parts per billion. That provision was added to the House version of the bill, allowing districts leeway to keep some taps on until they’re fixed. A handful of Western Washington districts voiced opposition to the bill, citing concern that the costs of fixing taps is more expensive than what the state plans to fund.
Exposure to lead, which is found in old paint, brass valves and fixtures inside drinking fountains and sinks, is unsafe at any level. It is particularly dangerous for young children whose brains are still developing. It can cause damage to the nervous system and permanent cognitive or growth delays.
The legislation is a “good step in the right direction” but isn’t perfect, said Pam Clough, acting director of the advocacy group Environment Washington. The bill is named in honor of Bruce Speight, former executive director of the group, who died in 2019. He spent years lobbying state lawmakers to pass legislation protecting school drinking water.
Future legislation should strengthen Washington’s requirements, Clough said: the law would be improved if testing was required every year, instead of every five, and if it mandated that schools immediately shut off taps with high lead concentrations.
“(Bruce) was a fierce advocate for fighting to ensure safe drinking water for Washington kids,” Clough said. “I know he would be really proud of this bill as a first step, and he would also want us to never stop fighting.”