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Testing shows many Pennsylvania kids are drinking lead-tainted water at school

Testing shows many Pennsylvania kids are drinking lead-tainted water at school
Testing shows many Pennsylvania kids are drinking lead-tainted water at school 04:26

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- It's a space for learning and growing, but some schools are exposing children to daily doses of lead-tainted water. 

Experts say Pennsylvania is sitting at the back of the class when it comes to protecting drinking water at school.

KDKA-TV Investigator Meghan Schiller takes us inside Pittsburgh Public School's Whittier Elementary which is proving just because a building has a lot of years under its belt doesn't mean it can't modernize.

"Health and safety of our students and staff is of the utmost importance," said Sanjeeb Manandhar, Pittsburgh Public Schools environmental sustainability manager.

Take a walk down any school hallway and you'll find one, but many drinking fountains are far from safe. That's why Sanjeeb Manandhar pushed for Pittsburgh Public Schools to filter the lead lurking in the drinking water.

The district started testing for lead voluntarily and didn't like the results. Since 2016, the district's replaced every old drinking fountain with lead-filtering bottle-filling stations.

"Although EPA has an action level which is 15 ppb, we wanted to ensure that we do whatever we can," said Manandhar.

KDKA Investigates obtained lead testing records for six school districts across the area: Baldwin, North Hills, Norwin, Penn-Trafford, Pittsburgh Public Schools and Pine-Richland. Every single one found lead in the water at some point in time. In some schools, some tests from certain faucets like in nurses' offices or locker rooms found results dozens of times higher than the EPA action level. 

"When they review test results from districts across Pennsylvania, 91% of those tests came back positive for lead," said David Masur, the executive director of PennEnvironment.

For that, Pennsylvania schools receive a failing grade. Experts agree no amount of lead is safe to drink. Yet there's no law requiring schools to test and no standards for how to test.

"How has it been allowed to go on for as long as it has?" asked KDKA's Meghan Schiller.

"Well, I think it's been allowed to go on for a couple of reasons. Number one: Unfortunately, when Congress passed the federal Safe Drinking Water Act a number of years ago, they essentially exempted almost all schools in the United States from having to comply with the law," said Masur.

It's a law that fails to protect vulnerable children from a contaminant known to damage kids' ability to learn, grow and behave. Pennsylvania Sen. Devlin Robinson wants to change that.

"This is specifically aimed to eliminate unsafe levels of lead in drinking water throughout every school in PA by January 1 of 2026," said State Sen. Devlin Robinson (R-27).

A new bill introduced this month will move away from testing and set aside cash to fix the problem.

"This is going to set aside about $30 million that is going to be utilized over three years," said Sen. Robinson.

If passed, districts can tap into those funds and purchase enough lead-filtering water stations to replace every old one. Or they can go the route of Pittsburgh Public Schools and work it into the budget now.

"When you look at the capital budget, or how much stimulus money they receive, in most cases, we're talking about a half or a third of 1% of the budget to replace every outlet in any single district," said Masur.

Masur adds we've waited long enough to do the right thing.

"Testing is not preventative. It's really getting all of this potential lead equipment out of our schools and protecting kids at the source," Masur said. 

Contributor: KDKA Investigative Producer Tory Wegerski

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