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Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017 12:08 am

Looking for lead in school drinking water



Thanks to a new law, lead in drinking water will be tracked more proficiently at schools and day-care centers. On Jan. 16, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a law requiring school districts statewide to conduct sampling for lead contamination in each school building’s drinking water.

In his State of the State address, Rauner touted the lead poisoning awareness law. “On Martin Luther King Day, all of us, Democrats and Republicans, stood together in signing a bill that requires all schools and day-care centers to test their drinking water regularly, and inform parents of the results,” said Rauner. “Dr. King spoke about the threat of lead in 1966, so it was particularly appropriate that we were able to sign that important piece of legislation on his birthday.”

Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environment Council, pushed for the bill to be enacted as a response to the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. “Our organization, like many other people in the country, was shocked by the water crisis that happened in Flint,” said Walling in an interview. “One of the causes of that crisis was improper corrosion control. A chemical that’s supposed to be added to the water wasn’t, causing that corrosion control to go into the wrong pipes.”

Although the situation in Flint is unlikely to occur in Illinois, according to Walling, she pointed out that there are numerous lead pipes in Illinois. This was enough for her to appeal to legislators to reform the state’s corrosion control. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there is no amount of lead that is safe for children,” said Walling. “At first we started off with a much larger bill that would have addressed the corrosion system, but then we started to focus on our youngest children, so we crafted the bill to center on schools and child-care centers.”

According to the law, school buildings constructed before Jan. 1, 1987, must conduct lead testing before the end of this year, while schools built between Jan. 2, 1987, and 2000 have to the end of next year to finish their testing. Day-care centers built before 2000 are required to undergo the same tests as well. “Reducing lead exposure, which disproportionately affects low-income children and children of color, is a social justice issue,” Rauner said.

Within six months, school water supply operators must present a report to the Department of Public Health. The study will include an analysis of all known lead service lines surrounding a given school district. Additionally, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will conduct routine inspections to schools, with the IEPA having the power to audit selected community water supplies.

“We worked with the attorney general, who pretty much wrote the bill and did a lot of research on it,” Walling said. “We also worked with a number of organizations like Sierra Club, the CDC and other environmental organizations. We drafted thousands of letters to legislators stressing the importance of this piece of legislation, and we had several lobbyists who educated legislators on the issue as well.”

Though Walling was pleased that the bill was signed into law, she recognizes that more work must be done to eradicate the threat of lead poisoning in schools. “The goal of this bill was to identify lead hazards that are in schools in this state,” she said. “I think we are going to have to work harder to make sure that those lead hazards are mitigated. There are so many known hazards in lead that can be exposed to children, so this is an incredibly important bill for the public health of our children.”

Alex Camp is an editorial intern at Illinois Times. He is pursuing his master’s degree at University of Illinois Springfield. Contact him at intern@illinoistimes.com.

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