Elevated lead levels at thousands of Md. schools prompts bill for better water quality

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Children go to school to learn — not to face brain-harming levels of lead exposure.

State lawmakers are working this year to expand upon legislation passed two years ago that shined a light on elevated lead levels in the drinking water at thousands of Maryland schools.

Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City) are sponsoring a bill that would lower the acceptable level of lead in Maryland school water fixtures and create a state grant program to fund remediation efforts.

“Our children spend the better part of their day in schools and we need to know their water is safe. Kids’ are particularly susceptible to lead and any exposure can have a debilitating effect on the way they learn, grow and behave,” Solomon said.

House Bill 1253 lowers the actionable amount of lead levels in school drinking water from 20 parts per billion to no more than 5 parts per billion, the Food and Drug Administration limit for lead in bottled water.

The legislation would also give schools grants to reduce children’s exposure to lead from drinking fountains, including measures such as installation of water filling stations. Priority would be given to school districts with the highest level of need.

McCray and Solomon stressed that lead in school water fixtures is an issue statewide.

The new bill comes as testing required by a 2017 bill from Del. Stephen B. Lafferty (D-Baltimore County) has revealed water fixtures at about 3,000 schools had lead levels at 20 parts per billion or higher — and in some cases, much higher.

Laura Stewart, vice president of advocacy for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, told lawmakers on Wednesday of fixtures in that county that far exceeded the state’s existing limit, including a kitchen water faucet at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington that yielded an initial test result of 700 parts per billion. Within Montgomery County, 23 schools had initial test results with readings of 100 parts per billion or more.

Since testing began after the 2017 law, elevated levels of lead have been found across the state: in Anne Arundel, Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Carroll, Calvert, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Washington, Wicomico, and Queen Anne’s, testified Kyanna Cadwallader, a program associate at Maryland PIRG.

“Enough. We need to take action to move to the lowest, safest levels that we can to ensure that the children who are in the school buildings are able to be healthy and ready to learn,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. The initiative is supporting legislation that would promote lower — and healthier — lead levels at school and at home.

Del. Robbyn Lewis (D-Baltimore City) has introduced the Maryland Healthy Children Act, which would require the state to help case managers provide services to children when their blood lead levels exceed a reference level set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The current CDC reference level is 5 micrograms per deciliter, while the state currently doesn’t provide services until a child’s blood lead level exceeds 10 micrograms.

The legislation has consensus support from state government, advocates and property owners.

According to the Maryland Department of the Environment’s 2017 Childhood Blood Lead Surveillance in Maryland report, the most recent data available, testing revealed 2,049 children in the state with blood lead levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter.

Lewis’ bill was heard Wednesday by the House Environment and Transportation Committee, alongside the school drinking water bill.

Even small amounts of lead have been associated with learning disabilities, speech delays, ADHD and lack of impulse control. Norton said permanent and irreversible damage starts at 2 micrograms.

Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker (D) came to Annapolis on Wednesday to point out a disparity that’s about to happen in the state. He introduced a county council bill earlier this year which would require Montgomery County to remediate drinking water outlets in public schools that have lead levels higher than 5 ppb.

Prince George’s County already uses 10 parts per billion standard and Montgomery’s 5 ppb standard is expected to take effect.

“We can’t allow two counties, the two biggest in the state, to protect their children from lead in their drinking water and allow a less protective standard in the other 22 counties,” Hucker said.

The Washington, D.C., school system also uses 5 parts per billion as its maximum allowable level and the state of Illinois recently set a standard of “any detectable level.”

Hucker characterized the 2019 bill as a completion of Lafferty’s 2017 measure, funding fixes for the testing results.

“The state Assembly knew what was happening when they passed Delegate Lafferty’s bill,” Hucker said. “You can’t gather the data and not take action.”

The only opposition to the legislation came from the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, on the basis that remediation could amount to an unfunded mandate

The bill has been supported by the Advocates for Children and Youth, American Academy of Pediatrics, Baltimore Teachers Union, Black Millennials for Flint, Maryland State Education Association, Montgomery County Council of PTAs, Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, and The Sierra Club.

Gerimi Belin, a member of the Baltimore Teachers Union and a science teacher at Green Street Academy in Baltimore, testified in favor of the bill at a Senate hearing last week.

“For too long, the students of Baltimore City have gone to schools where we as a state cannot be certain of the safety of the drinking water provided to them from drinking fountains,” Belin said. “The science is clear any level of lead is detrimental to the vital development of children and these damages last a lifetime.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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