By Landry Harlan
BU News Service
Massachusetts lawmakers and environmental advocates promoted legislation requiring replacement of any pipes that test positive for lead in a news conference at the State House Wednesday afternoon.
Last week, the Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that water faucets at William E. Norris School in Southampton were shut off after recent tests found lead in the water. The Arlington Advocate also reported on five polluted water taps at Arlington High School.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, lead can seriously harm a child’s health. It can cause slowed growth and development, and damage the brain and nervous system.
Sen. Joan Lovely (D-Salem) and Rep. Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead) co-sponsored the bill and acknowledged there could still be school districts where lead tainted water is poisoning children because there is no mandatory testing.
“There are many districts where we just don’t know,” Sen. Lovely said.
Massachusetts scored a D in protecting children from lead in water at schools, according to “Get the Lead Out,” an analysis of 16 state laws by the Environment Massachusetts Research and Policy Center. Released this month, the study criticizes the lack of any requirements in the state for schools to address the threat and an overreliance on testing instead of prevention.
Nearly half of the more than 40,000 taps in Massachusetts public schools contained some level of lead in the water as of Jan. 6, according to a study by the state office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Last fall, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection tested water in 300 schools and found lead in the water sources at more than half of them.
State and school officials tried to address the issue in November by flushing pipes, shutting off drinking fountains or taps and making long-term plumbing repairs in the buildings affected. Becky Smith, a director at Clean Water Action, a nonprofit advocacy group, said that schools were eliminating exposure and “parents should feel the water is safe to drink.”
Deirdre Cummings, legislative director of MASSPIRG, a consumer advocacy group promoting public health, said new findings are due to the “1,900 public schools in Massachusetts” not being required to sign up for testing.
“We need a mandatory standard to keep lead from them all,” she said.
The new bill, “An Act Ensuring Safe Drinking Water at Schools and Early Childhood Programs,” would make testing mandatory for all public Schools in the state. It is cosigned by 79 legislators with bipartisan support.
“Everyone regardless of party affiliation wants clean air and clean water,” Sen. Lovely said.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended action level for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion, but Dr. Hayley Teich, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, said in an interview that children that “even a small amount affects children more than adults” since they are more active and drink more water during the day.
“There is no safe level for our children,” she said.
Dr. Teich said parents who are concerned their child has consumed contaminated water should visit their pediatrician to monitor the level of lead in their child’s blood. She said that children under six years old must be checked every six months.
Toxic Action Center, a New England public health and environmental nonprofit seeking to work with communities to lower pollution levels, formed a coalition with MASSPIRG and Environment Massachusetts Center to promote this bill. The group says it is working with doctors and community leaders in seven other states to advance policies that combat the issue of lead poisoning in school and day care water.
Sylvia Broude, executive director of the Toxic Action Center, called the organization the “911 for the environmental movement.”
“We’d like to work directly with parents,” Broude said. “It’s time to get the lead out.”