Why does PA gets an “F” when it comes to lead in school drinking water?

Clean water

With school year kicking off, Pennsylvania does far too little to protect children from the threat of lead in school drinking water.

As the school year kicked  off across Pennsylvania, the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center sadly had to share some bad news for the commonwealth’s students, parents and school staff.  September 6th  we held a news conference in the state capital to release the  third edition of our  Get The Lead Out report, which compares policies to protect children from lead in school drinking water across all 50 states and  Washington DC.  

And for the third time, Pennsylvania was graded an  “F”  for the inadequacy of the state’s policies aimed at stopping pervasive lead contamination of schools’ drinking water.

The state’s two largest teachers unions, American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania (AFT-PA) and the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA),  joined us at  the event, calling on leaders in Harrisburg to implement a set of health-based best practices to ensure that we’re protecting Pennsylvania school children from the threat of lead contamination at school building drinking fountains and sinks.

The findings of our new report were eagerly covered by Pennsylvania’s largest media outlets, including coverage in PennLive; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; WESA-FM; the Delaware County Times; NBC-10 Philly; Fox 43, WGAL Channel 8 and ABC 27 in Harrisburg; Erie News Now; WJAC Johnstown-Altoona and many more.

Stephanie Wein holding up failing report card in Capitol rotunda, flanked by teachers union leaders

PennEnvironment’s Clean Water Advocate Stephanie Wein (center) releases “Get the Lead Out”, flanked by AFT-PA President Arthur Steinberg (left) and PSEA Vice President Jeff Ney (right).


Widespread lead contamination has been found in Pennsylvania schools.  In fact, a  2021 report by Women for a Healthy Environment, of 65 Pennsylvania school districts surveyed, 91% of tests done on water from those districts’ water fountains and sinks tested positive for lead. 

Health experts agree: lead is unsafe at any level. The health risks from lead exposure are well known: lead is a highly potent neurotoxin, with long-term exposure – even at very low levels – causing permanent damage to the brain, kidneys, and other organs.  Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead – harming their learning, development, and behavior.  And yet, everyday unknowing Pennsylvania parents send their kids to schools whose water is contaminated with lead – putting the most vulnerable among us at risk where they spend many of their waking hours.


Why the failing grade?

Even with the extensive knowledge about the threat posed by lead and the pervasiveness of lead in school drinking water, there aren’t strong  standards in place in Pennsylvania to protect kids from this potent neurotoxin. This includes no health-based standards in Pennsylvania for lead in school drinking water (which health experts call for  1 part per billion (ppb)), no requirements for school districts to replace old, antiquated drinking equipment that may be laced with lead with lead-filtering alternatives, and lagging requirements for even testing for lead in school drinking water. For all these reasons, Pennsylvania received the grade of an “F” in PennEnvironment’s scorecard.

Map US comparing grades of states

How does Pennsylvania stack up?

Turning that “F” into an “A”

The good news is that we can solve this problem, and there are clear steps we’re recommending that  our state leaders in  Harrisburg implement in order to keep Pennsylvania kids safe:

  • Preemptively replacing drinking fountains with filtered water stations to ensure that school drinking water is safe. This step has the added benefit that children tend to drink more water instead of sugary drinks when they have access to hydration stations, an additional benefit for children’s health. The Philadelphia School District are already taking these steps, installing lead-certified hydration stations.
  • Set a statewide health-based standard for lead in school drinking water of no more than 1 ppb of lead found in any school building drinking fountains or sinks used for drinking and cooking.
  • Notify the public about actions being taken by school districts to keep children safe from lead in water.

A bipartisan group of legislators in the state Senate have announced their intention to introduce new protections that would ensure Pennsylvania’s students are safe from lead in water at schools, led by State Senator Devlin Robinson (Allegheny County), Senator John Kane (Delaware and Chester counties), and Senator Art Haywood (Philadelphia and Montgomery counties).

Our children shouldn’t be exposed to potent neurotoxins in the very place they go to learn and grow. As our kids head back to school this fall, let’s take the steps we need to keep them safe from lead in drinking water!


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