Next year, a one-time pot of money to test for lead in the drinking water at some elementary schools in Washington will dry up.
But after a proposal to mandate such tests across the state crumbled during last year’s legislative session, lawmakers may soon resurrect a bill to sustain the testing and trigger automatic fixes to water fixtures with elevated levels of lead.
“When a child goes to school every day and goes over to the water fountain, they should not be drinking water that we know will lower their IQ,” said state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who filed House Bill 1860 last year and presented it again last month to the House education committee.
Commonly found in old paint and plumbing, lead is poisonous to everyone, but poses a greater risk to children, whose bodies more readily absorb the heavy metal. Exposure to lead can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems, and in elevated cases, lead can damage the kidneys, blood and nervous system.
Washington doesn’t require schools to test their drinking water for lead or any other contaminant. But HB 1860 would require all public and private schools to test every outlet used for drinking water or cooking at facilities built before 2000. The state would reimburse schools for the cost of the tests.
The bill also would require schools to close access to any outlet with lead levels at or above five parts per billion and notify the state about the test results within 24 hours. Schools then would have 30 days to either permanently shut off the outlet, provide an alternative source of safe water or install and maintain a certified filter.
“This bill takes serious and necessary measures to ensure our students, our teachers and staff are safe from lead-contaminated water,” said Tyler Muench, policy and outreach coordinator for the state superintendent’s office, which came out in support of HB 1860.
In 2018, the House education committee never held a hearing on HB 1860, and chair Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, also a Seattle Democrat, said at the time that important legislation often takes years to make progress in Olympia.
HB 1860 also has attracted 17 cosponsors; none are Republican.
Over the past two years, the Washington State Department of Health tested more than 8,600 water fixtures — everything from drinking fountains to bottle fillers, classroom sinks and kitchen faucets — at 199 schools and preschools that volunteered to participate. The results of those tests, according to an analysis from Environment Washington, showed that 97% of schools had at least one water source with levels of lead above one part per billion.
About 61% of the total fixtures tested at or above one part per billion, a threshold recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. About 400 taps, or 5% of the total tested, failed a suggested federal threshold of 15 parts per billion.
After Pollet’s bill failed to make it out of committee last year, a compromise state budget included $1 million to expand the voluntary tests in elementary schools through next year. The 2019-21 budget, also for the first time, included an automatic trigger to notify parents and the public if the tests found levels of lead above one parts per billion.
That last-minute addition to the budget followed reporting from Education Lab and The Seattle Times on the persistence of lead in the drinking water at Seattle Public Schools.
During last month’s hearing, no one testified against HB 1860. But an official from the Department of Health told lawmakers that expanding testing for lead in schools and lowering the threshold for action would identify “tens of thousands” of fixtures for treatment or replacement.
The official urged lawmakers to provide adequate funding to pay for that.