Dangerous lead levels still found in Mass. schools' drinking water

BOSTON — Two and a half years after Gov. Charlie Baker launched a statewide initiative to test school water, results are still revealing dangerous amounts of lead.

162 schools submitted test samples during the 2017-18 school year, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. 51 schools--nearly a third--had at least one fixture that tested higher than the state's action level of 15 parts per billion (0.15 ppb).

“What the data shows us is we have a significant public health threat and a threat to our children,” said Deirdre Cummings, director of the public health program at Massachusetts Public Information Research Group (MASSPIRG).

Boston 25 analyzed more than 12,200 tests results submitted to MassDEP in 2018. The data revealed more than 650 instances of a school fixture showing dangerous levels of lead.

State data shows one of the worst test results came June 13 inside Hollis Elementary School in Braintree. A bubbler tested more than a hundred times over the state’s recommended action level of 15 ppb, a standard for regulation set by the EPA.

Baker launched the Assistance Program for Lead in School Drinking Water in 2016 following the crisis in Flint, Michigan. The program helped schools, many that hadn't checked their faucets in years, through the testing process. Hundreds of schools participated in the voluntary program, and tens of thousands of tests were conducted.

In the first six months of 2018, Boston 25 found hundreds of examples of unsafe lead levels coming out of school faucets, and state lawmakers have done very little to fix the problem,

“Sometimes it takes a little while, but I’m not letting go of this,” State Representative Lori Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich and State Sen. Joan Lovely introduced the “Safe Drinking Water at Schools Act” in Jan. 2017. The proposal would require schools to replace lead service lines, conduct mandatory tests and be transparent when it comes to letting parents know the results.

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A year and a half later and the proposal is still languishing in the State House. Ehrlich said there is concern among lawmakers over how the state will pay to enforce the regulations.

“It’s expensive. This will cost money,” she said.

While state lawmakers debate the bill, Brockton school officials say their students are already drinking clean water. Deputy Superintendent Mike Thomas said the district replaced 1,300 faucets and 125 bubblers at a cost of around $200,000.

“It’s hard, I mean, school systems have to balance budgets all the time,” Thomas said. His district is dealing with $9 million budget shortfall.

MORE: State testing for lead in school drinking water

“You have to decide where that money goes,” he said. ““You can’t hide results. They are what they are.”

Last year, Boston 25 discovered 645 schools found at least one faucet over the state’s action level, according to MassDEP data.

John Rumpler is the senior director of the Clean Water for America Campaign with Environment America.

“Until we’ve removed the lead-bearing parts, the faucets, the fixtures, the plumbing that has lead in it, we cannot guarantee safe drinking water for our children,” Rumpler said.

MORE: Hundreds of Mass. schools find high levels of lead in drinking water