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Testimony: Safe School Drinking Water Act

By Emily Scarr
State Director

Sen. McCray and Del. Solomon (SB992/HB1475)

Sen. Carter and Del. Rosenberg (SB371/HB457)

FAVORABLE

We request a favorable report. Our children need safe drinking water – especially at school where they go to learn and play. Unfortunately, lead is contaminating drinking water at schools in Maryland. 

Since 2017, we have said we should have a more health protective action level for lead in school drinking water. We strongly support this bill to lower the action level to 5ppb.

Thanks to this Committee’s leadership, Maryland was one of the first states in the county to require testing for lead in school drinking water, and we were pleased that you worked last year to expand grant funds for schools to remediate for lead. Last year, the legislature also required schools to report on all lead tests over 5ppb, with reporting due in December, but we have not yet seen the results.

Jurisdictions in Maryland have gone further than required by state law: Montgomery County and Baltimore County have enacted an action level of 5ppb and Prince George’s County has enacted an action level of 10ppb.

In 2019, Maryland PIRG and Environment Maryland released a report, Get the Lead Out: Ensuring Safe Drinking Water for Children At School, which gave Maryland a “C” on efforts to protect kids from lead in school drinking water. This was an improvement from the “F” we received in 2017. 

We understand that some of the Boards of Education are concerned about costs to remediate for lead. We are glad that this committee was able to increase access to grant funding for lead remediation last year through the Healthy School Facility Fee. HB1 and SB1 also include an additional year of funding for that fund. When taps test above the action level they can shut off access until they are able to remediate or add in filling stations. The question comes down to: if we have taps testing at levels over 5, should they be left on or turned off?

BACKGROUND

Public and private schools across the state are finding lead at frightening levels.

  • In Baltimore City, some schools have been using bottled water since 2007. 
  • Some Harford County schools have also had students on bottled water since 2009. 
  • Since testing began after the 2017 law, elevated levels of lead have been found in counties across the state: Anne Arundel, Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Carroll, Calvert, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Washington, Wicomico, and Queen Anne’s. 
  • Some came back with astonishing levels of lead. For example, a classroom water fountain at Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary School in Silver Spring tested 356 ppb and in Kensington a kitchen faucet at Einstein High School tested at 700 ppb.  

Our existing law:

  • Requires all schools to conduct testing for lead in drinking water every 3 years.
  • Required the state to report to the General Assembly by December 2019 on all tests that came in above 5ppb.
  • Attaches the action level to the federal standard as outline by the EPAs 3Ts, which at the time of the law’s enactment was 20ppb.
  • When elevated levels are found, it requires immediate shut off, parental notification, and other remediation actions.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that school drinking water sources not exceed 1 part per billion.

All too often, schools (like homes) have pipes, plumbing and/or fixtures that leach lead into drinking water. In some cases, old service lines – the pipes that brings water from the mains in the street into buildings – are made entirely of lead. And where there is lead, there is a risk of contamination and exposure.

The health threat of lead in schools’ water deserves immediate attention from state policymakers for two reasons. Lead is highly toxic and especially damaging to children — impairing how they learn, grow, and behave. We ought to be particularly vigilant against this health threat at schools and pre-schools, where our children spend their days learning and playing. 

A potent neurotoxin, lead affects how our children learn, grow and behave. According to the EPA, "In children, low levels of [lead] exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.

SOLUTION

Given the high toxicity of lead to children, the most health-protective policy is simply to “get the lead out” of our schools and pre-schools. This involves removing lead-bearing parts from schools’ drinking water systems — from service lines to faucets and fixtures.  

Because all this prevention work will take time to complete, schools should immediately begin regular and proper testing of all water outlets used for drinking or cooking and promptly remove from service those outlets where elevated lead levels are detected. And schools should provide the public with easy access to testing data and the status of remediation plans. 

The promise and viability of this “get the lead out” approach can be seen in municipal and voluntary programs across the country. Madison, Wisconsin and Lansing, Michigan have removed all lead service lines from homes, and New York City has replaced them at schools. Yes, this will cost money.

Undoing this toxic legacy in our communities will take time. But we can and should act now to protect our schools– the places where our children go each day to learn and play.

We respectfully request a favorable report

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