Illinois Steps Up on Lead in School Drinking Water

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In the wake of the Flint lead crisis, many states, local communities and parents came to a disturbing realization: federal law does not require schools to test for and address neurotoxic lead in their drinking water. Illinois is the latest state, following on efforts in places like New York and New Jersey, to take on the issue through a new law requiring comprehensive lead testing of school drinking water.

The new Illinois law is the result of concerted stakeholder negotiations in the past year, spear-headed by Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office and a coalition of environmental groups, including the umbrella Illinois Environmental Council, NRDC, the Prairie Rivers Network, and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. It focuses on requiring schools serving young children to test for lead at each source of potable water in school buildings. Negotiations began in full force in the spring of 2016, when the Chicago Public Schools began voluntarily testing school drinking water for lead (in response to pressure from journalists asking for any lead testing data from the last several years)—and finding alarming results.

Summary of the New Law

Working out the details of the new law took many months of negotiations with representatives for school districts, state agencies, municipalities, water supply systems, labor and children’s health advocates, daycares and other stakeholders. In the end, these groups came together and produced an overall positive step forward for children’s health in the state. A summary of the final product is as follows:

School lead testing

Public and private schools built prior to 2000 and serving kids in pre-school to grade 5 must conduct one-time lead testing of (nearly) all sources of potable water in school buildings.

  • Sampling. The testing must consist of two samples, the first conducted with no flushing of the system within at least 8 hours, and the second timed to capture problems with different portions of the water system serving the school. This protocol is based in part on the Chicago Public Schools approach, where 5 samples were collected at each outlet, due to finding some higher levels in later samples; but the state approach was modified to reduce the costs on schools while capturing a significant portion of the system.
  • Testing schedule. Older schools built prior to 1987 (when new federal standards for lead in plumbing came into effect) must go first, with testing due by the end of 2017. Newer schools built between 1987 and 2000 are included as well, again based on experience in Chicago showing problems at newer schools, and must complete testing by the end of 2018 (the Department of Public Health is also required to determine by 2019 whether schools built after 2000 must test).
  • Availability/notification of results. Schools must submit all test results to the Department of Public Health. If any sample at a school tests above 5 parts per billion (ppb) of lead, the school must provide individual notification of the results to all parents of children at the school; results at or below 5 ppb may be posted on the school’s website.
  • Exception. There is an exception for schools that have already conducted lead testing voluntarily, which may apply for a waiver.

Guidance on mitigation of lead in school drinking water

By mid-April, the Department of Public Health must post on its website guidance on mitigation actions for lead in school drinking water, as well as water management practices at schools.

Rules for assessing lead in drinking water at day cares

By the beginning of 2018, the Department of Child and Family Service, in consultation with the Department of Public Health, must adopt new rules laying out procedures and standards for assessing levels of lead in water at licensed day care centers, day care homes, and group day care homes constructed prior to 2000. The rules must include testing parameters, notification of results, and training requirements for lead exposure and mitigation.

Lead service line inventory and notification of work on mains or meters

In addition, owners and operators must take additional steps beyond those required by federal regulations to compile an (annually updated) inventory of lead service lines within or connected to their distribution systems, including privately owned lead service lines. Owners and operators must also provide at least 14-days prior notice to residents of planned work on water mains or lead service lines that may impact the levels of lead in their drinking water, as well as notification of repair or replacement of water meters when such work is initiated. The notifications must include warnings about the potential impact of the work, information about best practices for preventing consumption of any lead in drinking water, and information regarding the dangers of lead in young children.

Funding sources for compliance with school testing and other requirements

The new law amends a number of existing state laws to enable schools, water suppliers and municipalities to access various funds or impose fees for purposes of complying with the new testing requirements and other aspects of the new law, or to get recovery for compliance-related costs in their rates.   

What’s Next

While all of these features are improvements on the status quo, it is important to note that the new Illinois law does not set any thresholds above which schools must mitigate lead found in their drinking water as a result of the required testing. Nor does it require schools or anyone else to take any steps to address identified lead problems, or to conduct any follow-up testing to determine the effectiveness of responses. For example, if a result comes back above 15 ppb lead—the current action level that applies to water supply systems under federal law, and a level that presents a substantial danger to children (there is no “safe” level of lead exposure)—the school is not required to take any steps under the new state law. Instead, the law in its current form relies on schools, parents, other local officials and anyone else interested in the problem to step up voluntarily and figure out what to do with the testing results (with forthcoming guidance provided by the Department of Public Health, as noted above).

We trust that many Illinois schools and parents and others will act swiftly and responsibly to eliminate threats to kids from school drinking water. But because bandwidth and resources vary greatly from school to school and town to town, future actions will be needed at the local, state and federal levels to ensure that all schools in Illinois and across the country have the information and resources they need to abate this threat to kids’ health. For now, NRDC will continue to provide input and guidance on implementation of the Illinois law, and we look forward to reviewing results as testing proceeds to pinpoint areas particularly in need of attention.  

About the Authors

Meleah Geertsma

Senior Attorney and Midwest Director, Health Equity and Water

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