Editorial: Test all Washington schools for lead in water

Seattle parents should worry about reports of lead in the water at many city schools. But at least they know whether concern – and repairs – are warranted.

Many school districts don’t test water inside school buildings because the state doesn’t pay for the tests and some cannot afford the extra expense. Since 2004, Seattle Public Schools has voluntarily tested all sources of drinking water for lead, cadmium, copper and iron at least once every three years.

For the safety of school children and their educators, the Legislature must put money in the budget to pay for environmental testing at every public school. Over time, exposure to lead can cause health and development problems.

Doing a series of environmental tests recommended by Washington’s Department of Health, including testing for lead in water, would cost an estimated $45 million a year statewide. Health officials have estimated that just the lead testing would cost about $2,270 per school, or about $5 million for the entire system.

Testing is only part of a bigger budget request, because repairs and upgrades may be needed when problems are discovered. Nothing is more important than protecting the health of children.

About a quarter of the districts that do test the water inside their schools have found levels of lead that require action – minimums of between 15 and 20 parts per billion, depending on which guidelines are followed.

State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, has proposed a bill mandating testing in every school building once every three years. House Bill 1860 also would mandate special filters be installed on all faucets, fountains or other water outlets used for drinking or cooking when elevated lead levels are found. By July 2021, all schools would be required to replace all lead-bearing parts in their water-delivery system.

The state Health Department made a rule in 2009 calling for environmental tests in schools but decided it wouldn’t be enforced until the state paid for it. That’s 10 years of students drinking water that might not be safe for them.

Some districts voluntarily take on the expense or have used construction bond and levy money to pay for testing and mitigation. Seattle’s construction levy on the ballot this month would likely support some of this work.

HB 1860 has not yet had a hearing this session. Nearly every year, lawmakers propose a similar measure that has been pushed aside by other priorities. Once again, lawmakers have a lot of needs competing for state dollars this session, but lead testing to protect the health of every public school student must be mandated and paid for. The children have been waiting too long.