Boston – Reacting to pervasive lead contamination in schools’ drinking water, MASSPIRG and Environment Massachusetts gave Massachusetts a D grade today for policies that do too little to address the problem, according to a new national report, Get the Lead Out. The report graded the effectiveness of 32 states’ policies in addressing lead in school drinking water. While both the Legislature and the Baker Administration have taken some steps since the release of the first Get the Lead Out report in 2017, Massachusetts maintains its D grade due to its inability to effect these changes.
The findings were released at a State House briefing hosted by Senator Joan Lovely and Representative Lori Ehrlich, sponsors of An Act ensuring safe drinking water in schools (H.774 and S.500). The panelists included Dr. Sean Palfrey, Boston Medical Center; Jackie Coogan, Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association; Michael Thomas, Brockton Public Schools; Emma Dietz, Environment Massachusetts; and Deirdre Cummings, MASSPIRG.
“Schools should be safe places for our kids to learn and play, but Massachusetts is still not doing enough to protect our kids from lead in drinking water,” said Emma Dietz, clean water associate for Environment Massachusetts. “We need policies that actually get the lead out of faucets and fountains in our schools and pre-schools.”
“Lead is a potent neurotoxin, affecting the way our kids learn and behave,” said Sean Palfrey, MD, Medical Director, Boston Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, Boston Medical Center. “There is no safe level of lead for children.”
According to the lead testing data from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), more than half of the 43,000 taps tested from 980 Massachusetts schools since 2016 tested positive for lead. The vast majority of those lead levels exceeded the 1 part per billion (ppb) limit for lead recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Most schools and pre-schools still have fountains or faucets that contain lead, and wherever there is lead, there is a risk of water contamination.
Nevertheless, current state law does far too little to prevent children from drinking water with lead in it at school. While Massachusetts does have a free voluntary testing program and a good transparent website that discloses detailed test results, there are no mandatory lead testing or remediation requirements for lead in drinking water at schools and child-care centers. In the report’s comparison of 31 states and Washington, DC, these shortcomings resulted in Massachusetts’ D grade. Washington D.C. earned the highest grade of a B+ while 21 states received failing grades.
“There is cause for optimism,” said Deirdre Cummings, legislative director for MASSPIRG. “In addition to the strong bill filed by Senator Lovely and Representative Ehrlich, Governor Baker proposed up to $30 million in his budget for lead remediation at schools. If the bill and money are ultimately passed, Massachusetts would rise to the top of the class, earning an A for protecting children from lead in their drinking water.”
The groups called for passage of the bills filed by Lovely and Ehrlich. Co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 79 legislators, these bills require regular testing; the installation of lead certified filters or water filling stations; and the removal of lead service lines. The bills establish a health-based lead level standard for schools and child-care centers of 1 ppb and require the immediate shut-off of outlets with elevated levels of lead.
"This report makes it clear that we have a public health emergency here in Massachusetts damaging children’s developing brains," said State Representative Lori Ehrlich (Marblehead), " We already know how harmful prolonged lead exposure is, which is why we removed it from gas and paint — the evidence is clear that we need to act to remove it from school drinking water, too. Parents send their students to school expecting them to learn and grow, not to risk lasting harm. We owe it to our children and their futures to do something.”
"Providing safe drinking water to our students represents an economic, environmental, and moral imperative," said State Senator Joan Lovely (D-Salem). "I am pleased to partner with Rep. Ehrlich, Environment Massachusetts, and MASSPIRG to file legislation that would help to fix this problem.”
“Parents send their kids to school to be in a safe environment,” concluded Michael Thomas, Deputy Superintendent of Operations, Brockton Public Schools. “That includes the physical part of the building they’re going to be in. You have to make sure the water the students are drinking in schools is safe.” The Brockton school district replaced its old water fountains with filtered water bottle filling stations and, after testing showed lead in the water, replaced faucets with new certified lead-free models.