AUGUSTA — In the wake of last year’s lead contamination crisis in Michigan, a Portland-area lawmaker is proposing that all public schools in Maine be required to periodically test drinking water for the presence of the toxic heavy metal.

Under current law, schools and day care facilities that have their own water supplies are required to test for lead at least once a year, yet there is no similar requirement for schools served by municipal water systems. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, would expand that requirement to schools and day care facilities connected to public water systems and would require that the Maine Department of Education publicly release test results upon request.

While many public schools have begun testing their water for lead, there is currently no centralized database showing those test results and any remedial actions.

The proposal follows several incidents in Maine – most recently at elementary schools in Yarmouth and Benton – where voluntary tests showed lead levels exceeding the federal standard requiring action.

“We know that no level of lead is safe for our children and that exposure to lead can lead to impaired development, especially for developing brains,” Millett told the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “We should ensure that our children aren’t being exposed to lead no matter where that water comes from or the pipes it travels through. Old plumbing in our schools can leach lead and copper into our water, even if the public water system is safe.”

RECENT INCIDENTS DRAW ATTENTION

Lead is a neurotoxin that can affect nearly every organ system in the body, but is particularly dangerous to children. Children with lead poisoning often have delayed brain development and learning difficulties, and also can suffer from hyper-irritability, convulsions or even death.

Although lead poisoning in children has been a public health priority for several decades, it captured national attention in 2015 and 2016 because of events in Flint, Michigan. Thousands of children – and tens of thousands of other Flint residents – were likely exposed to dangerously high lead levels after the city switched to a new water source without adequately treating the raw water. As a result, the more corrosive water from the new source caused lead from older plumbing to leach into the water.

Recent incidents and reports show that lead-contaminated water is also a problem in some Maine schools.

In October, an elementary school in the central Maine town of Benton turned off some faucets and drinking fountains and began supplying bottled water to students after tests revealed lead levels well above the 15 parts per billion “action level” designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Samples taken from one faucet near the cafeteria came back at 670 parts per billion.

And two months earlier, 16 water fountains and faucets at two Yarmouth schools – Yarmouth Elementary and Harrison Middle – tested above the 15 parts per billion standard. In both Yarmouth and Benton, the elevated lead levels were only discovered through voluntary testing because the schools were served by public systems that test water coming from the water treatment facility but not inside the schools.

A March 2016 analysis of federal reports by USA Today showed that 26 schools or day care facilities in Maine that were served by private wells or their own systems – and roughly 350 nationwide – reported lead levels higher than the 15 parts per billion between 2012 and 2015. The test results for those schools were only publicly available because the schools and day care facilities were required to test for lead.

Many schools on public water systems are already testing their water in response to advice from water district officials and increased awareness of the issue. Between March and November 2016, 150 schools using public supplies tested their water and another 123 requested tests between December 2016 and this month, said Pat Hinckley, transportation and facilities administrator for the state Department of Education.

However, there is no centralized database showing which schools tested for lead, providing those tests results or indicating whether actions were taken to fix any problems. Millett’s bill would fix that by requiring the Department of Education to compile those results, although Hinckley testified Wednesday that that would require a data system and additional personnel, all at extra cost. Instead, Hinckley suggested that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Disease Control and Prevention – which currently conducts the testing for schools on private water systems – continue to house that information.

GROUPS BACK WATER-TESTING BILL

A fiscal note attached to the bill predicted that while the additional testing would increase DHHS costs, those expenses should be covered through a fee charged by the agency.

A recent national report by the organization Environment America Research and Policy Center gave Maine an “F” grade – along with roughly a dozen other states – for failing to require adequate testing or preventive steps.

Earlier Tuesday, representatives of the organization’s local affiliate, Environment Maine, along with representatives from Prevent Harm, the Toxics Action Center and the Maine Public Health Association, held a news conference to support the idea behind Millett’s bill. They suggested several changes to strengthen the measure, including requiring schools to test all water fixtures and to follow a specified testing protocol.

“It’s a very preventable type of exposure,” said Emma Halas-O’Connor, coalition and grassroots advocacy coordinator at Prevent Harm. “There is no reason that our children should be having any lead in their bodies from the water that they drink in school.”

The Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association supported Millett’s bill in concept, but want additional details on how the testing requirements would be implemented. The organizations also want a “safe and systematic approach” to tracking down the source of any lead contamination, and said additional funding – potentially from state-issued bonds – may be needed to cover the costs of extensive plumbing renovations.

The committee will likely hold a work session on the bill in early March.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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