Metro-East News

General Assembly close to requiring schools to test for lead

Smithton school takes proactive step on lead

Superintendent Susan Homes talks about the comprehensive environmental study they had done that included testing for lead in the school's drinking water. No lead was found in the water.
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Superintendent Susan Homes talks about the comprehensive environmental study they had done that included testing for lead in the school's drinking water. No lead was found in the water.

The Illinois General Assembly is a step closer to requiring schools to test for lead in their water.

Two years after originating in the Senate, a bill passed Monday by the House in a vote of 108 to 1, with one abstention, would require all schools in the state to collect water samples for analysis at an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency-accredited laboratory.

Schools built before Jan. 1, 1987, the year after lead plumbing was banned, would have to be tested by Dec. 31, 2017. And schools built between 1987 and 2000 would have to be tested by 2019.

The bill would also require the Illinois Department of Public Health to post on its website information about lead mitigation in schools within 90 days of passing the bill, as well as decide by June 30, 2019, whether it will require schools built after 2000 to test for water lead contamination.

The bill applies to schools that teach children from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade that are hooked up to a community water supply.

Although the proposed legislation applies only to schools that have students below sixth grade, the measure was meant to target the most affected demographic, young children, explained Jen Walling executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

“(Still,) even community colleges and universities should test,” she said.

Walling explained that testing could be paid for in three ways, including with life safety health money, tort immunity money and, possibly, a one-time rate charge by water suppliers.

Jeff Faust, of Environmental Consultants, which has tested dozens of schools in the St. Louis region for water lead contamination, agreed that the bill is a step in the right direction, but he also thought there was more to testing than meets the eye.

“It’s more than going out and pulling a sample,” he said.

Faust liked that the bill referenced provisions about drinking water in schools that were laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency, but the bill does not require anyone, including people who sample school water, to become familiar with them.

Faust thought about the issue from the perspective of asbestos remediation. The law allows schools to remove asbestos, but first those people must become certified to do so properly.

In a related issue, Faust also spoke about lead contamination in old paint, which poisons more children than lead in water. He said that people must be certified to take a lead paint sample, so it makes sense that there should be certifications for water sampling. There is no current requirement to test schools for lead paint, he said, though he “absolutely” thinks there should be one.

Faust also raised concerns about the independence of the water samples. School officials could protect their workplace, though the bill allows school administrators to designate someone to take the samples.

In addition to addressing water lead contamination at schools, the bill would also require the Illinois Department of Public Health to devise rules on testing drinking water at day care centers on or before Jan. 1, 2018. IDPH would also have to issue guidelines by June 30, 2018, that address lead mitigation.

Lead testing in schools has gained traction during the past few years since the water in Flint, Mich., was contaminated following the decision to change the city’s water source.

Metro-east homes show a low level of contamination. In the past five years, roughly a quarter of homes here showed some level of contamination, though only six percent returned samples of more than five parts per billion, which the Flint Water Study said was a “significant contamination problem.”

Although communities routinely check lead for contamination, schools are not required to. Still, some in the metro-east have decided to check for themselves, including Belleville 201, Shiloh 85, O’Fallon 90 and Smithton 130.

“You just have to be proactive,” Superintendent Susan Homes said about the decision to check the water sources.

Currently, the school action level set by the Environmental Protection Agency is 20 parts per billion. The bill in the General Assembly would require schools notify parents when if any sample reached five parts per billion.

Casey Bischel: 618-239-2655, @CaseyBischel

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