Missouri lawmakers are set to require schools to test and, potentially, filter drinking water to prevent lead poisoning, making the state one of the few to require administrators to comply stricter standards than federal regulations.
The state offers grants to schools to pay for water testing, but there is no requirement to test, and only a handful have chosen to do so.
And although scientists agree that there is no safe level of lead – a dangerous neurotoxin that is especially harmful to children – federal drinking water regulations allow lead concentrations far higher. high before requiring the water systems to act.
The House and Senate have already overwhelmingly approved school water testing legislation this session, though the votes were on different bills. Now the provisions have been added to a sweeping education bill that is expected to be passed and sent to the governor next week.
“One of the things that is going to help our school kids now and forever is to get lead out of the water they drink,” said Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur.
With a week to go, Schupp began amending legislation on numerous bills in hopes of improving his chances of success.
Most states, like Missouri, provide funding through federal grants that allow schools to test their waters. But Missouri would be unique among some of its Midwestern peers in requiring schools to take action.
The state budget, approved by lawmakers on Friday and sent to the governor, includes $27 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds to help schools test for lead and install filters.
On Friday, a conference committee took the rare step of adding the policy to a bill that did not include it when it was first passed by the House or Senate. He only needs one more round of approval by each chamber to get to Governor Mike Parson’s office. The legislative session ends at 6 p.m. on May 13.
Schupp said she was “delighted” and “grateful” that her colleagues agreed to add the lead testing provisions on Friday.
“We’ll continue to put it on other bills…but I think, right now, it looks like the way to go,” Schupp said.
The bill requires schools to test their drinking water and install filters if lead levels exceed five parts per billion. They can either install filters at the water inlet to the building or at each sink or water fountain, depending on the source of the contamination. Schools should remove old lead-lined coolers that were banned decades ago.
Early versions of the bill would have required action at lead concentrations above one part per billion. This is the maximum level recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, as it is the lowest detectable level, although there is no known safe blood lead concentration.
But lawmakers changed the wording, saying the sophisticated lab tests needed to detect such low levels of lead aren’t as widely available.
“So as technology and testing improves, hopefully we can bring that down,” Schupp said. “But at the moment we want to make sure it’s as safe as possible.”
Schools should always strive to go beyond the bill’s requirements to limit lead levels to less than one part per billion, said Jeanette Mott Oxford, senior campaign strategist at Metropolitan Congregations United. The organization is part of the Missouri Filter First Coalition.
“If we demonstrate that we’re a best practice, that we can get to part per billion, that would inspire other people to make that their goal in the states around us for sure,” Oxford said.
The Environmental Protection Agency does not require public water systems to take action unless more than 10% of routine samples contain 15 parts per billion or more lead.
Lead can leach into drinking water from aging lead pipes, especially if the water is corrosive.
President Joe Biden’s administration has pledged funds to remove the millions of lead service lines that remain in the ground more than 30 years after they were banned.
Niara Savage and Tessa Weinberg of The Independent contributed to this story.