Illinois bill would require testing school water for lead

Every school in Illinois would have to test drinking water for lead contamination by the end of 2018 under a bill being considered by Illinois legislators.

The law would require testing of most water outlets such as drinking fountains, classroom sinks and kitchen faucets, but not bathroom sinks or spigots inside custodial closets.

Test results that show contamination above 5 parts per billion in a 250 milliliter sample would require notification by the school district to parents of students in the affected school, according to the bill. However, the bill does not require action by school officials if contamination is discovered. The U.S. EPA recommends schools shut off service on water equipment when results show contamination at 20 parts per billion or more.

"We figured in starting here and requiring notification that there would be parental pushback on schools to act and they would decide what to do," said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, an environmental lobbying group that helped Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office sculpt the bill.

The Illinois House approved the bill Monday 108-1, with Republican Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer of Jacksonville voting no. Republican state Rep. Mike Tryon of Crystal Lake abstained because he owns a water testing lab in McHenry County. The bill could go to the Senate Tuesday, the final day of the legislative session.

While Lisa Madigan and public health advocates pushed for the testing mandate, school district leaders and municipal officials initially opposed the bill because of added cost and responsibilities. Originally, the bill called on municipal water suppliers to conduct the tests and face potential criminal charges if notification of contamination wasn't done properly.

"Our biggest concern initially was who would bear the cost burden, but also we were worried about some of the notification provisions," said Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Brad Cole.

The current bill makes school districts responsible for collecting the samples and paying for the tests. It also allows districts to use property tax dollars levied for school safety to cover testing and remediation costs, which usually involve replacing faucets, drinking fountains or other fixtures.

Last month, a Daily Herald investigation of lead testing at 653 suburban schools showed barely half had received any kind of testing, and very few had been tested to the extent the proposed law would require. Of 5,112 water samples tested in 319 schools, 15 percent had some level of lead contamination, according to school district records.

St. Charles Unit District 303, among those to test most thoroughly, spent roughly $31,000 to check 577 samples and performed remediation at the 127 sites that recorded some level of lead contamination.

Walling credited such media reports with helping spur the compromise that kick-started stalled legislation.

"The work you guys did putting those results out made it seem accessible and doable," she said.

Districts that have recently performed comprehensive tests would be exempt from the new law.

Currently, only schools on well water have to test regularly for lead. Most suburban schools receive Lake Michigan water. This bill would also apply to private school and state licensed child-care facilities. But it would also only require the testing once, something Tryon said is a mistake.

"They should do regular testing because the water chemistry can change and that can have an effect on the equipment," he said.

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  A bill that would require lead testing at all Illinois schools also mandates school districts inform parents of results that exceed a threshold of 5 parts per billion. Brian Hill/
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