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Cup of clean spring water at Paradise Elementary School where lead has been found in water. Thursday, November 8, 2018

In the wake of the Flint, Michigan, lead contamination of drinking water  in 2015, officials in six of Lancaster County’s 17 public school districts decided to see if there were lead concerns in their own schools.

There were.

Tests by registered consultants found 10 schools with unsafe lead levels in some water fountains, classrooms sinks and a cafeteria.

Students may have been consuming the toxin for years, decades even, in some of the schools, which addressed the problems after discovering them.

But the schools did not have to do the tests.

Except in the relatively few cases where a school runs its own water system and draws from on-site wells, no state or federal laws existed in Pennsylvania to make sure kids and teachers weren’t exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water.

“Most parents would be shocked to learn that there are almost no standards for protecting our children from lead in their school drinking water,” said Stephanie Wein of the PennEnvironment statewide environmental group.

But now there is a state law to get schools to test for lead. Kind of.

Urged, not required

The new law urges — but stops short of requiring — public and charter schools throughout Pennsylvania to test for lead in their drinking water during the 2018-19 school year.

The legislation was driven by the Flint scare and by new studies showing that more than one-third of schools that voluntarily test for lead in their water nationwide find it at concerning levels.

Pennsylvania becomes the 26th state to put in place some sort of initiative to get schools to test for lead in their water. Most of the efforts have happened since the discovery in Flint, where public water no longer treated with an anti-corrosive agent began leaching dangerous levels of lead from old pipes into homes and schools. One study found 40 percent of Flint homes had elevated lead levels in their drinking water.

State legislators amended the  Pennsylvania Public School Code last June to get schools to test for lead by the end of the current school year.

All 17 school districts in Lancaster County are doing that. So is La Academia Partnership Charter School. Seven districts, not including the five that tested in Flint’s wake, have already tested for lead under the new law. The results of those, examined by LNP/LancasterOnline, show no elevated lead levels.

No districts here opted out

No local district will choose an option in the new law that allows it to forgo testing for financial reasons as long as a public meeting is set up to discuss the lead issue.

Environmental groups and some legislators are unhappy with the new law, saying it doesn’t go far enough to protect students and the public.

For example, state Rep. Karen Boback, a Republican from Luzerne County and a former teacher, had introduced a bill to require schools to inform parents of lead-testing results.

That requirement was left out of the new law.

Of the five local school districts that have found lead in school water so far, only two sent letters directly to parents.

Also left out of the new law was Boback’s proposal to make schools take action if lead is found in water at 5 parts per billion.

That’s three times more stringent than the federal action level of 15 parts per billion for lead. But it’s the level at which the public is urged to boil water when various other  contaminants are found in public drinking water sources and the limit allowed for bottled water to be sold.

“It didn’t go far enough,” Boback said of the new state law. “Everybody should be mandated” to perform the tests in schools, she added, referring to the no-testing option for cash-strapped schools.

“This is not frivolous. Lead poisoning, God forbid, would be tragic.”

She plans to re-introduce her bill in the current legislative session.

New law a good step

Despite limitations, the state’s first semi-mandatory requirement to search for lead in Pennsylvania schools is “a great idea,” said Dr. Jeffrey Martin, a family doctor, chair of the Partnership for Public Health for Lancaster County and member of the Lancaster Lead Coalition.

“It makes sense since lead can affect people’s educational process, and when a school is charged with educating our children, we should make sure they are not exposed to lead.”

Martin would prefer to see the state pay for testing for lead in schools and for correcting any problems.

PennEnvironment also thinks the new law does not have enough teeth.

The group wants to see all public and charter schools be required to test, and a tougher action threshold of 5 parts per billion established. The group also wants it mandatory that schools fix lead problems, not just bring in bottled water.