SILVER SPRING – Explaining that his “first responsibility is to ensure the health of our kids,” Councilman Tom Hucker (D-5) introduced a bill to reduce the acceptable level of lead in Montgomery County schools. The bill would also look into cleaning up water fountains at county parks, libraries and recreation centers.
The county follows the state standards of 20 parts per billion, but Hucker wants that limit reduced to five parts per billion, which is the threshold that Washington, D.C. uses. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that lead concentrations in drinking water be below 15 parts per billion.
Montgomery County Public Schools recently had its drinking water fixtures tested in response to a state law that required all schools be tested for lead by last summer.
In October 2018, the district learned that 246 of its water fixtures exceeded the 20-million parts per billion level. According to the school report, of the 13,463 outlets tested, 1.8 percent were over the legally acceptable limit.
Poolesville High School had the most drinking water fountains over the limit. At that school, eight of the 33 tested fixtures had elevated levels over the limit.
Besides the ones over the limit, “many more” fountains showed lead levels below 20 but above the five-million parts per billion that Hucker is recommending as the new county standard, he said.
Since receiving the report, the school district has worked to clean up the water fountains that were not in compliance. Any fountain that received a failing grade immediately was put out of commission until it could be repaired, Hucker said.
But that is not enough, Hucker stressed.
He would prefer all drinking facilities have zero lead, but he decided to push for a level of five parts per billion as a more-attainable goal.
“Scientists agree: There is no safe level of lead, a neurotoxin that permanently damages our children’s developing brains and bodies,” Hucker said. “Now that we have recent test results from the Montgomery County Public Schools, we have to take action to address the lead in drinking water in our schools. We owe it to our children to do all we can to protect their health.”
After reviewing the test results, Hucker said that not only are high levels of lead a health problem; they also are “an equity issue.”
Schools in the western part of the county received financial help from PTAs and donors to remove the lead. Not every PTA is able to do that, he said.
“We can’t allow that. It shouldn’t be up the PTAs,” Hucker said, adding all schools should receive the same protection.
Although he believes every water fountain in the county should be tested and high levels of lead removed, Hucker said his priority is the schools, which are “full of kids all day long.”
He said he will send a letter to all county department heads seeking a cost estimate for getting water fountains in their areas cleaned up.
Hucker estimated that it would cost between $2 million and $2.5 million dollars for all fountains to operate at a five points per billion lead level or below. That money, he said, would come out of the county’s capital budget.
“This is the sort of thing that has to go to the top of the list. This is not just a comfort issue,” he said, comparing removing the lead in drinking water to fixing county buildings, which are included in the capital budget.
Del. Jared Solomon (D-18) also is working to bring the acceptable level of lead in water down to 5 parts per billion. He sponsored a bill in Annapolis that would reduce the acceptable level. His bill requires that the Department of the Environment, in consultation with the State Department of Education, set up a grant program to help schools cover the cost of fixing their water fountains.
His bill prioritizes applications for grants to those schools with the highest levels and those with the most fountains not in compliance.
Lead in water comes from the water pipes located both inside and outside a building.
Lead found in water usually “comes from the decay of old lead-based pipes, fixtures or from leaded solder that connects drinking water pipes,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, believes “no safe blood level in children has been identified.”
According to Hucker, lead accumulates in children’s teeth and bones and can cause behavioral and learning problems, lower IQs, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia.
Hucker will address the introduction of his bill in a press conference on March 19.