Editor's Note: This editorial has been updated to reflect the correction below.
One wonders how many of things we see as hazards in our environment are really just figments of our hyper-sensitivity. Somewhere along the line we we became people who wear face masks during cold and flu season, and smear ourselves with hand sanitizer pretty much all the time.
Whether all of it’s truly necessary, science and medicine have given us solid proof that exposure to some things are deadly serious — with lead being high on that list. Still, plenty of old schools in Massachusetts have bubblers and faucets with higher-than-acceptable amounts of lead in their water. So many that the group Environment America recently gave Massachusetts a “D” for insufficient work to rid schools and day cares of lead-laden fountains and taps. New Hampshire got a “C.”
“A potent neurotoxin, lead affects how our children learn, grow and behave,” the group writes in its report, “Get the Lead Out.” It cities warnings by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the heavy metal damages the nervous system and causes learning disabilities, hearing loss and complications with red blood cells. Its toxicity really isn’t in dispute. Lead paint was banned for use in homes back during the Carter administration.
But, according to the group, drawing upon data collected by the state Department of Environmental Protection, thousands of school faucets and fountains still show presence of lead. The state lists results of tests for lead and copper testing in school water fixtures — and what’s been done to address the problem — in an online database at eeaonline.eea.state.ma.us. Throughout the state and North of Boston region are examples of fountains and taps that tested above the acceptable lead threshold of 15 parts per billion.
State environmental officials and school leaders, to be fair, seem to recognize the severity of this problem. As Statehouse reporter Christian Wade noted in a story last week, testing two years ago found at least one water sample with higher than acceptable levels of lead at more than half of the 1,000 schools surveyed. Last year, testing at 162 schools found 51 with higher than allowable limits.
All of that testing was set in motion in response to the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the entire water supply was contaminated, promoting a federal state of emergency. In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has earmarked $30 million in the coming state budget for follow up tests and to upgrade schools with lingering problems.
Getting lead out of schools and childcare centers — even if it lingers in old faucets that would be difficult for children to drink from — should be a priority. This shouldn’t be something that gets chipped away at, year by year, as the money becomes available.
Marblehead Rep. Lori Ehrlich calls the situation a “public health emergency.” She and Sen. Joan Lovely, with the support of some 80 of their colleagues, want the state to require by law that schools remove any lead-laced fixtures, install water filters that screen for lead, and regularly test for the metal.
It's is a serious proposal that shows the urgency with which school and state officials should act. As Lovely put it at a recent press briefing, “In 2019 we should not be sending our kids to a school where the water they drinking can damage their health. It’s completely unacceptable.”
In an age where it's fair to be suspicious of the supposed boogeymen that lurk all around us, lead in the water supply remains a serious threat. As Ehrlich and Lovely say, and as Baker has signaled in his budget, we need to speed up the day when all fountains and taps in our schools are regularly tested and fall within safe ranges.
Due to an editor’s error, an editorial in Wednesday’s Eagle-Tribune misidentified Sen. Joan Lovely of Salem. She serves in the state Senate, where she is assistant majority leader.