Legislation aimed at removing lead-contaminated water from hundreds of school fountains passed unanimously on the General Assembly’s final day this week — but in weakened form.
The Lead Reduction and Remediation Act, sponsored by Del. Jared Solomon, a Montgomery County Democrat, toughens standards on how much lead can be in a school’s water to the lowest traceable amount and requires the public reporting of positive test results. It also gives schools access to the $30 million Healthy School Facility Fund for remediation efforts for water outlets used for drinking or food preparation.
But after some school systems complained that wasn’t enough money for repairs, the bill was amended in the Senate to no longer mandate that schools must repair the lead-contaminated water outlets — only that they must shut them off, Solomon said.
The bill also was amended to no longer require the replacement of lead-contaminated school water fountains or faucets that are not currently in use, such as those in Baltimore schools that have been turned off for years. The legislation now states it’s the legislature’s intent that schools “proactively” work to repair the lead-contaminated water fountains.
“They had a lot of concerns over the costs,” Solomon said of local school systems. “They didn’t think they all would be covered with the Healthy School Facility Fund. It’s a step forward, but hopefully we get more next year. We shouldn’t be playing with lead. Parents don’t want their children drinking that.”
The legislation lowers the acceptable amount of lead in water from 20 parts per billion to no more than 5 parts per billion, the Food and Drug Administration’s limit for lead in bottled water. Notice of elevated lead levels from testing must be sent to the state, sent to parents of students at affected schools and posted on the schools’ websites. Solomon argued that the public reporting of the toughened tests for lead will spark outcry for more repairs.
“The advocates around the state are going to demand it,” Solomon said.
Sen. Cory V. McCray, a Baltimore Democrat, sponsored the Senate version of the bill.
State tests this year found elevated levels of lead in water from 519 school drinking water fountains or sinks across the state, including 229 in Montgomery County, 67 in St. Mary’s County, 58 in Anne Arundel County, 55 in Baltimore County and 48 in Howard County.
The majority of schools in Baltimore City have relied on bottled water for a decade, following revelations about lead contamination that forced officials to ban children from drinking out of water fountains or sinks.
Solomon’s bill was one of two anti-lead poisoning bills that passed the General Assembly this year.
The legislature overwhelmingly passed the Maryland Healthy Children Act, sponsored by Del. Robbyn Lewis, a Baltimore Democrat. After a child tests positive for lead poisoning, Lewis’ bill would require the Maryland Department of the Environment to conduct environmental investigations to determine where the lead hazards that poisoned the child exist — whether from chipping paint, toys, soil or other sources — and then warn others about the danger.
The bill has an estimated cost of about $1 million per year.
“It will trigger faster action and it will help us remediate more properties,” Lewis said. “Our housing stock will become more and more free of lead. We want every child to be protected from ever being exposed.”
Lewis said she considers passage of her bill and Solomon’s a “win” for Baltimore’s children.
“It’s tough to see your bill get watered down,” Lewis said of Solomon’s bill, “but never before has the state of Maryland even made a commitment to getting that level of lead out of drinking fountains. It’s still a breakthrough. He set the bar, and we can build on that.”
In 2017 alone, 2,049 Maryland children younger than 7 tested positive for lead poisoning — including 789 kids from Baltimore.
While Baltimore has the most children suffering from lead poisoning, other jurisdictions are not immune. In 2017, Prince George’s County had more than 300 kids test positive for elevated lead levels, while Baltimore County had more than 200 positive tests.
Ruth Ann Norton, president of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, called passage of the two bills “significant steps to protect our children, our pregnant women and their health.”
She said Solomon’s bill will alert parents just how much lead is in their children’s water.
“We were telling people they were safe. But there’s no safe level of lead,” Norton said. “We are moving toward zero tolerance and that’s important.”
Even with passage of the two bills, several pieces of anti-lead poisoning legislation failed this General Assembly session.
Del. Nick J. Mosby and Sen. Jill P. Carter, both Baltimore Democrats, unsuccessfully pushed for legislation that would permit lawsuits in Baltimore courts against lead paint manufacturers whether or not a specific company’s product can be proved to have poisoned a specific person.
Such legislation has been introduced — and killed — repeatedly in Annapolis over the past two decades, in the face of industry opposition.
Carter said the lead poisoning legislation that did pass this year is “long overdue.”
She argued the kids of Baltimore should have working water fountains in their schools and not need to resort to using bottled water.
“It’s definitely progress, but it’s not enough,” Carter said. “It’s not nearly sufficient. The bottom line is we still have children who are being poisoned. We still are not adequately holding slumlords accountable. And we still refuse to hold the lead paint companies accountable.”