York County schools might test for lead in drinking water with new law

Gavin Waltemyer, 7, drinks from a water fountain at Yorkshire Elementary School while attending the Bright Horizons Summer Camp, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2018. John A. Pavoncello photo

York County schools — along with all other schools statewide — will now be required to test for lead in their drinking water, or at least discuss the issue in public.

Legislation that passed with the 2018-19 state budget amended the school code so that all facilities where children attend school — including charters, cyber schools and intermediate units — must be tested, or the school entity must inform the community about lead issues at a public meeting.

It was based off of Senate Bill 647, introduced by Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia/Montgomery, which made testing non-negotiable — but legislators were hesitant to pass an ultimatum. 

Some had concerns about costs to districts, as well as ongoing concerns about state mandates versus local control, Haywood said.

Though it does not include all of his stipulations, the code amendment is definitely an improvement over having no testing requirements, said the senator's legislative director, Liana Walters.

The federal government has released new guidelines for fluoride additives to public drinking water, but most York County residents won't see a change. The York Water Co. doesn't fluoridate its water supply except in West Manheim Township.

Now it's up to school districts to decide which route to take in the upcoming school year, but Walters said she hopes the amendment will push districts in the direction of testing regardless.

"It’s conceivable that some districts would not want to answer to parents as to why they are not testing," she said. "(The) priority is to make sure the safety and education of Pennsylvania students is secure."

History: Concerns over Pennsylvania's lead levels have persisted for years.

The state's lead testing requirements recently were given an F grade in a 2017 report that evaluated 16 states on laws and policies affecting lead in schools' drinking water.

Get the Lead Out, prepared by the Environment America Research & Policy Center, graded states on such things as lead-removal requirements; standards for what levels prompt removal; testing requirements; and public disclosure and transparency.

York Water Co. is required by the Environmental Protection Agency to test its water every three years, and test results in 2016 showed elevated levels of lead for a handful of customers — but schools and businesses were not affected. The company is replacing all of its lead pipes. 

More:York Water Co. finds some lead contamination

More:York Water Co.: Check your lead levels, Yorkers

Haywood has been pushing for updated lead laws for years. 

Also, Rep. Karen Boback, R-Scranton, introduced House Bill 2025 in the 2017-18 session, which called for lead testing in schools every two years, and Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, introduced HB 1448 in the same session, calling for lead testing or a public hearing with added requirements for a remediation plan.

The bill that ultimately passed June 22 — and was signed by Gov. Tom Wolf — was an omnibus bill that included other amendments to the school code.

But Haywood has not given up on further legislation — he plans to work toward combining HB 1448 and SB 647.

FILE - This Feb. 5, 2016 file photo shows the Flint Water Plant tower in Flint, Mich. As natural resources go, oil tends to get more attention from investors than clean drinking water, even against the backdrop of headline-grabbing shortages in Flint, South Africa and elsewhere. But a few funds are showing that investing in utilities and water infrastructure and technology companies can pay off, especially for long-term investors looking to diversify their portfolio.(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

Stricter measures: In Haywood's SB 647, introduced in the 2017-18 session, the terms for lead testing in the state were more stringent.

The bill required water, paint and soil in every school building to be tested prior to the school year. If lead levels tested higher than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's acceptable amount, the district would have to submit a remediation plan to the Department of Education within 30 days.

The state Department of Environmental Protection would oversee the process, and if the school failed, the Education Department would step in to ensure it was done properly.

Any school building built after 1978 was exempt, but all others had to be tested.

In the version that passed, no remediation plan is required, but the district must report to the Department of Education and post testing results publicly on the school website if they exceed the maximum safe level, as determined by the EPA's National Primary Drinking Water Regulations.

However, language in the code specifies that districts are to ensure no child or adult is exposed to contaminated water and to make an alternative drinking source available.

Haywood said he believes districts will enact remediation plans regardless.

"I’d be surprised if any school district would have a discovery and ignore it," he said of elevated lead levels.

Higher risk: Residents of York City are at higher risk for lead poisoning, according to a 2014 Pennsylvania Department of Health study. 

Children from 20 cities were tested for blood lead levels based on factors that put them at higher risk, such as the population of children under 7, low-income families and older housing, according to the study.

"Even though the percentage of confirmed (elevated blood lead levels) has decreased significantly since 2007, these cities still experience confirmed (elevated blood lead levels) at a rate of more than twice that of the rest of the state," the study reports.

Confirmed levels are those that are greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter, according to the report, but the CDC now recognizes 5 micrograms per deciliter as a level at which public health action should be initiated. 

In York City, 1,612 — or about 30 percent of the city's 5,460 children under age 7, based on 2010 census data — were tested.

More: York kids' confirmed lead levels high

Rebecca Aubrey, R.N., left, takes a blood sample from one-year-old Ian Zinn's toe, as his mother Jamie Zinn, of Glen Rock, comforts him at Pediatric Care of York, P.C. in York, Pa. on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

Of those tested, 12.41 percent had blood lead levels greater or equal to 5 micrograms per deciliter, compared to the statewide level of 9.37 percent. 

Flint, Michigan, which made the national spotlight over lead in its drinking water, had 4.01 percent of its 3,045 children tested with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, according to 2014 numbers reported by the York Dispatch.

At the county level, of 3,500 children under 7 tested in York, 10.11 percent had levels at 5 micrograms per deciliter or higher.

Fifty children tested at confirmed elevated levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or more.

Though the CDC determines blood lead levels that prompt public action, the center clarifies that lower levels of lead are still unsafe.

"No safe blood lead level in children has been identified," the website reads. "Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized."

York City School District spokeswoman Erin James confirmed the district will comply with the law, adding that "we'll be gathering information and having discussions over the coming weeks" to make a decision about which route to take.

Cost concerns: The cost of testing is undetermined, but Walters, Haywood's legislative director, said it's a couple of hundred dollars for individual residents. 

It will be up to the districts to choose a testing service, Haywood said.

Depending on how many facilities need to be tested, how big each facility is or other factors, costs could climb — and so far, there is no allocation from the state to cover these costs, Walters said.

"It will not be free," Haywood said. "On the other hand, there will be a significant cost to families and children" if lead exposure is allowed to persist.