Lead news conference

Rep. Karen Boback (R-Lackawanna), right, speaks during a news conference in the Pennsylvania Capitol Tuesday March, 26, 2019. The news conference was held to talk about Pennsylvania's performance with lead issues in schools. To the left of Boback is Rep. Austin Davis (R-Allegheny), and Rep. Mark Gillen (R-Berks).

A bipartisan proposal introduced Tuesday could significantly improve lead testing and prevention in Pennsylvania schools’ drinking water.

House Bill 930, unveiled at a press conference in Harrisburg by state Rep. Karen Boback (R-Lackawanna) alongside environmental and health advocates, would require public and nonpublic schools to test outlets used for cooking and drinking annually for lead and notify parents of the results.

It would also set a new statewide standard for lead in school water of 5 parts per billion, far below the current level of 15 parts per billion.

“Clean water is not a Republican or Democrat issue,” Boback said Tuesday. “It is, in its most basic form, a constitutional issue.”

Current state law urges schools to test their drinking water for lead, but schools can opt not to as long as they hold a public meeting focused on lead.

“We don’t appear to even be attempting to fix this problem,” Boback said.

The proposal was released in conjunction with a report by PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental advocacy group, that gave Pennsylvania a failing grade for its handling of lead in school drinking water.

With this bill, however, Pennsylvania could become a “national leader” in lead testing and abatement.

“We need to test, treat and tell when it comes to lead,” PennEnvironment clean water advocate Stephanie Wein said at Tuesday’s press conference. “And the good news is House Bill 930 would do all those things.”

The bill does not include funding for lead testing and remediation efforts. Eliminating lead typically requires installing lead filters or replacing faucets and fixtures. That could come at a steep cost, particularly for cash-strapped school districts.

"The school districts that are doing this out of their maintenance budgets and finding that it is very doable," Wein said, adding that schools must prioritize fixing "the thing that literally could be causing brain damage."

That missing piece, however, concerns Penn Manor Superintendent Mike Leichliter.

“I think we need to do more. Schools need to do more. But I would like to see a comprehensive approach,” he said.

Leichliter said that there’s no excuse not to protect kids from lead exposure. With that said, adding another unfunded mandate for Pennsylvania schools could prove troublesome for certain districts.

He suggested forming a commission to come up with long-term, economically feasible solutions to the lead problem.

A version of the bill was introduced last session but failed to make it out of committee. Boback said both iterations garnered praise from Republicans and Democrats, as well as parents and health professionals.

“The cognitive and behavioral effects of lead exposure come at a huge loss to society,” said Kelly Kuhns, chair of nursing at Millersville University, “and place effected children on a trajectory in which reaching their full potential becomes a near-impossibility.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, lead can hinder brain development, growth, kidney function and the production of vital nutrients.