Why the heck doesn’t Washington require lead testing in schools?

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THE scandal in Flint, Mich., and the closer-to-home revelation that Tacoma parents weren’t told about dangerously high lead levels in some schools underscore why the public needs to be vigilant about its tap water.

And that vigilance should start with a simple — and badly overdue — change in state rules: Schools should be required to test for lead, tell the public the results and remediate the problem, immediately.

It is a bit of shock, frankly, that a good-government, environmentally focused state like Washington doesn’t already have that requirement. Many school districts, such as Seattle Schools, have voluntary tested for lead and posted the results.

But it’s worth noting that Seattle instituted comprehensive testing only after parents protested orange-tinted water spewing from drinking fountains at Ballard High School in 1990 and at Wedgwood Elementary School in 2003. Tacoma schools waited almost a year to tell parents recently about astonishingly high lead levels; one school tested at 100 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold for schools.

Lead testing in schools is too important to be voluntary. High exposure has been shown to drop kids’ IQs by five points or more.”

Lead testing in schools is too important to be voluntary. High exposure has been shown to drop kids’ IQs by five points or more.

So why isn’t it mandatory?

The state Department of Health has worked since 2004 on an administrative rule requiring lead testing — as well as a panoply of other environmental health and safety standards — for schools. But after years of administrative sausage-making, the final rule, adopted in 2009, was delayed because the Legislature did not fund it.

Part of the problem is that the so-called “school rule” was sweeping and expensive. In addition to lead testing, it required indoor air-quality standards to prevent asthma outbreaks, new playground equipment to prevent injuries and even new carpeting.

In fact, the costs of lead testing are budget dust compared to the rest of these requirements. A 2009 analysis, for example, estimated the full regulations would raise the cost of each new high school by almost $1 million, and add one-time costs of $13,400 and annual operations costs of $9,042 for each elementary school. With more than 9,100 schools statewide, the cost is huge.

So the “school rule” has remained stuck — on the books, but not implemented — even as the Legislature poured billions of dollars into the school system. Meanwhile, kids may be drinking tap water that lowered their IQs.

Gov. Jay Inslee last week took a step toward resolving this impasse. He directed the Department of Health to review the “school rule” and look for ways to more quickly implement lead testing in schools. That’s good, although Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey went farther and simply mandated such tests.

This is too important to wait any longer.