Michael Wagar Commentary: Legislature Needs to Pass Bill to Fix High Lead Levels in School’s Drinking Water

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Three years ago, the state Department of Health started randomly testing drinking fountains for levels of lead in schools and the results were alarming.

The Department of Health found what is called “actionable” levels of lead in seven Lewis County elementary schools. Most alarming were the levels of lead at Cascade Elementary in the Chehalis School District. The school had the seventh-highest level of lead out of all the schools tested in the state with 282 parts per billion. The Department of Health recommends school districts replace any faucets that have levels above 9 parts per billion.

Area school districts quickly replaced or shut down the faucets in question, but the fact remains that the testing is voluntary and spotty. Our students are being exposed to improper levels of lead.

Exposure to lead, especially for young students whose brains are still developing, can cause damage to the nervous system, and cognitive and growth delays. Elevated levels of lead in the blood can lead to damage to the kidneys and blood systems.

While the state does not require testing, many schools do so anyway. Early volunteer testing of about 200 elementary schools revealed about 97% had at least one faucet with levels above 1 part per billion. An expanded voluntary testing revealed out of 551 state elementary schools tested between 2017 to 2020, 82% had at least one faucet above 5 parts per billion. That same study did have some good news. Only about 17% of water sources in elementary schools across the state would need to be fixed. That comes out to only about $3,271 per school to fix (the cost to replace a faulty faucet is about $375 per outlet).

With the state Legislature in session once again, there are efforts underway to make testing for lead in state schools mandatory. This is not the first time a bill has been proposed to first identify then fix high lead levels.

Three years ago a proposal in the Legislature never got a hearing. Two years ago in 2019 the bill made it through the House with unanimous approval, only to die in the Senate after complaints by lawmakers that any fixes were not funded and the costs would be placed on school district budgets — the dreaded unfunded mandate.

This year House Bill 1139 has a chance, but without Republican support. The bill was sponsored by 21 Democrats, according to a Seattle Times story, with no Republicans signing on. The bill would mandate all public and private schools test all faucets, along with bathroom sinks and water spouts used in the school kitchens, for schools built before 2016.

Schools would have to publicly post the results and then fix any outlets with high levels of lead.

The Department of Health would conduct the testing. Schools found with high levels would then apply for a grant through the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to pay for the fixes. OSPI has set aside $3 million to fund any upgrades.

The bill passed out of the House Committee on Education on Feb. 11 and is still in play.

The cost to fix this unhealthy problem is not excessive. 

The money is there and one of the Legislature’s highest duties is to protect the citizens, with students at the top of the list.

I urge our fellow 19th and 20th District Republican legislators to sign on and support this much needed bill.

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Michael Wagar is a former president, publisher and editor of The Chronicle. You can reach him at michaelbwagar@gmail.com.

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