Philadelphia Freedom

How we persuaded the city to get the lead out of the drinking water in its schools

The schoolchildren of the nation’s sixth most populous city will soon be among the country’s best protected from lead in their drinking water.

The schoolchildren of the nation’s sixth most populous city will soon be among the country’s best protected from lead in their drinking water.

On June 16, the Philadelphia City Council voted unanimously to require the replacement of all drinking fountains in the city’s schools with lead-filtering hydration stations. The new stations will reduce the lead level to less than 1 part per billion. (The mayor has 30 days to sign the measure, which we expect he will do.)

The vote marks the final victory of a campaign, led by PennPIRG and PennEnvironment, that transformed a crisis into an opportunity and, ultimately, positive change.

After the 2014 discovery that thousands of Flint, Michigan, residents were drinking water contaminated with high levels of lead, PIRG and the Environment America network (which includes PennEnvironment) conducted studies revealing that lead contamination extended across the country, including in school systems from coast to coast.

According to a February 16 report, co-authored by PennPIRG Education Fund, PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, 98% of the Philadelphia public schools tested had drinking water samples contaminated with lead. Sixty-one percent of all outlets tested across the district were tainted with lead. 

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Meanwhile, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remedy the problem had landed in Philadelphia’s lap. As part of the American Rescue Plan, the federal government awarded the city’s school district $1.1 billion in funding.

Our campaign to convince the city to spend a chunk of that money on protecting kids from lead exposure was a textbook case in ratcheting up the right degree of support and action at the right time directed at the right people.

We started with the school district itself. Using the district’s own data, we showed officials that they could mitigate the lead problem in all of their school buildings for a mere fraction of their $1.1 billion windfall.

The school district officials, however, balked.

So we kicked it up to the city council. We found a champion in City Councilmember Helen Gym, who wrote the bill to replace all of the district’s drinking water fountains. Our report provided Councilmember Gym fuel to win over her colleagues on the council— especially when the Philadelphia Inquirer and all of the city’s major TV and news radio stations covered the report.

That media attention, in turn, helped us rally more than 70 community groups across the city to join our call for action. Community development corporations, home and school associations, healthcare professionals, environmental groups, cultural organizations: We reached out to any local group we could think of that’s invested in kids and their wellbeing, and virtually all of them responded. 

Nothing, of course, beats personal persuasion. We brought our coalition partners and more than 60 community residents to meet virtually with 11 members of the city council to show their support for getting the lead out.

We also made sure we dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s, lining up experts to testify for the bill in front of the council’s Licenses and Inspections committee. The panel approved the bill with no objections.

When the bill came before the full council for a final vote, it was a done deal. We had conducted research that added up to a compelling case for action, organized a strong coalition with deep roots in the community, earned the media’s attention, mobilized the grassroots, and coordinated our inside game. The result is the best reward: Philly parents now can look forward to their kids growing and learning unimpaired by toxic lead from the drinking water at the very schools they trust to help their kids grow and learn. 


David Masur

Executive Director, PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

As executive director, David spearheads the issue advocacy, civic engagement campaigns, and long-term organizational building for PennEnvironment. He also oversees PennPIRG and other organizations within The Public Interest Network that are engaged in social change across Pennsylvania. David’s areas of expertise include fracking, global warming, environmental enforcement and litigation, and clean energy and land use policy in Pennsylvania. David has served on the environmental transition teams for Gov. Tom Wolf and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, and been named one of Pennsylvania’s “40 under 40” environmentalists by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. Under David’s leadership, PennEnvironment has won the two largest citizen suit penalties in Pennsylvania history against illegal polluters under the federal Clean Water Act. David lives in South Philadelphia with his family, where they’re involved in their local elementary school, community garden and civic association.

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