Children in Missouri would be better protected from lead poisoning under a state legislative bill requiring schools to nearly rid their drinking water of the dangerous toxin.
the invoice, heard Monday by the House Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, would require schools to test drinking water, remove old coolers and filter water where lead is present. The goal is to drink water with a lead concentration of less than one part per billion. The state’s current level of action for drinking water is 15 times higher.
Briefing her colleagues on the bill on Monday, Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, said the legislation would require schools to test their waters and then mitigate. Generally, she said, adding filters would be the best solution.
“Filtering is going to be a lot easier than pulling out all the pipes,” Bailey said.
Lead is a colorless, odorless and toxic heavy metal and a neurotoxin that can have irreversible effects on the organ systems of the body. Children are particularly vulnerable and can suffer from slowed growth and development, as well as hearing, speech and learning problems from exposure, even at low levels.
“This is truly a child-focused bill,” said Rep. Paula Brown, D-St. Louis, who worked on the legislation with Bailey.
State governments already have funds, provided through federal grants, for schools that voluntarily test their water. But if the bill passes, Missouri would stand apart from its peers in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska by demanding action at such low levels.
The prevalence of lead poisoning has steadily declined over the past decades. Forty years ago, more than 80% of children had lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter in their blood, more than double the level that modern medical professionals consider high, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But while lead has been banned in gasoline, paint and pipes for decades, it remains in older homes and buildings.
Between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018, more than 2,500 Missouri children – just over 3% of those tested – had blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per decilitre. In Nebraska’s Latest Report, 300 children – less than 1% – had high blood lead levels. More than 500 Kansas children — nearly 2% — had elevated blood lead levels, according to the state’s latest report. In Iowawhere authorities updated their definition of “high” blood lead levels under federal direction, more than 1,100 children had more than 3.5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood in 2020.
Iowa Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, introduced similar ideas to his state and pushed state agencies to spend pandemic relief money to install filters. But he said his bills had not been heard by the committee and the agencies had been slow to act.
He said the lack of action was “amazing”.
“We’re too busy banning trans girls from playing sports and passing bills allowing people to use ivermectin while on a ventilator,” Bolkcom said.
Eradicating the remaining environmental lead has been a priority for President Joe Biden’s administration, sparking a national discussion about the toxin’s contamination legacy. The infrastructure law passed by Congress and signed by Biden last year allocates $15 billion in funds to replace lead utility lines over the next five years.
Bailey and supporters of his legislation noted that federal COVID-19 relief funds could help pay for efforts in Missouri schools. A House budget subcommittee discussed adding $20 million for lead filtration to an appropriations bill still under consideration by the larger budget committee.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend lead concentration in school, alcohol consumption does not exceed one part per billion, as this is the lowest detectable level, although there is no known safe blood lead concentration. The Environmental Protection Agency requires public water systems to take action if more than 10% of routine samples contain 15 parts per billion or more lead.
According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, the primary lead-related hazard for children in Missouri is exposure to deteriorated lead-based paint.
“We’ve been working on that,” said Bridget Sanderson, director of Environment Missouri and a supporter of the legislation. “And now we just have to update our aging infrastructure to help protect our children.”
Lead in school drinking water is common in states across the country. Harvard School of Public Health the researchers found that of the 12 states included in the 2019 study, 44% of schools had at least one water sample test above the state lead concentration action level.
Some states take a more direct approach. Lawmakers in Michigan and Colorado have proposed bills based on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s “filter first” legislation, requiring schools to install filters without going through the hassle of testing. Proponents of this strategy claim that installing filters is more cost effective than testing water sources.
Missouri legislation initially followed the same pattern.
But it’s only a temporary fix, not a permanent one, said Joan Matthews, head of the urban water management team at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Matthews developed the model legislation.
“The moonshot is to remove lead from plumbing, fixtures, fittings and solder,” Matthews said. “Just get rid of the lead.”
A truly lead-free school should have no lead in its plumbing, says the Missouri Filter First Coalition. But the federal definition of “lead-free” in the Drinking Water Lead Reduction Actwhich came into force in 2014, allows a weighted average of 0.25% lead in the parts of pipes and fittings that come into contact with water in any system supplying water intended for human consumption.
“I guess that’s an interim approach,” Mathews said. “Until we get completely lead-free plumbing.”
the Missouri Independent and the NPR Midwest Newsroom jointly explore the issue of high lead levels in children in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Do you have a question to ask us or a story to share? E-mail: [email protected] Where [email protected]