The discovery of elevated lead levels in drinking water in some Tacoma schools should serve as a wake-up call for legislators, health officials, and school administrators throughout the state.
A year ago, the testing of water throughout Tacoma Public Schools revealed that some buildings had unacceptable levels of lead. While 20 parts per billion is generally regarded as an acceptable level, at Reed Elementary School levels ranged as high as 2,330 parts per billion. This is disconcerting, but what is particularly egregious is that the district’s water-quality specialist did not report the findings up the chain of command. It wasn’t until The (Tacoma) News-Tribune looked into the matter this year that the findings came to light, and new testing has revealed improvement in the lead levels.
Lead in drinking water has become a national talking point this year, following the tragic events in Flint, Mich. There, state officials ignored warnings about toxic drinking water in homes and buildings throughout the community, a situation that could be traced to budget-cutting measures and malfeasance on the part of state regulators.
The impact of lead is not to be trifled with. As Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha told CNN: “It drops your IQ, it affects your behavior, it’s been linked to criminality, it has multigenerational impacts. There is no safe level of lead in a child.”
Studies have linked a reduction in lead levels — particularly through the banishment of lead-based paints — to a reduction in national crime levels over the past several decades. As the Chicago Tribune wrote last year about one study of those exposed to lead: “The toxic metal had robbed them of gray matter in the parts of the brain that enable people to pay attention, regulate emotions and control impulses. Lead also had scrambled the production of white matter that transmits signals between different parts of the brain, largely by mimicking calcium, an element that plays a critical role in brain development.” And lead poisoning is irreversible.
Which brings us back to the idea of lead in Washington schools. In 2009, state officials passed a rule requiring schools to test water for lead, but the Legislature has declined to fund the dictum, leaving it as more of a suggestion. As Lauren Jenks of the state Department of Health told The News-Tribune, “These rules remain our best advice to schools.”
In Vancouver Public Schools, a district official said testing for lead was started this week, and results are expected in about two weeks. In Evergreen Public Schools, the district has conducted tests in the past.
Meanwhile, the Legislature should add funding for statewide tests to its long to-do list for next year’s session. In 2009, when the state initially recommended testing, the estimated cost throughout the state was $5 million, and Gov. Jay Inslee this week ordered a review of the unenforced and unfunded rule. Dave Johnson of the Department of Health said, “The larger issue here is that many of our public health services are underfunded. Safe drinking water is a foundational public health service that must be present in every community.”
Indeed. One of the fundamental duties of government must be to ensure clean water, clean air, clean soil, and environmentally responsible industry. Yet some political factions these days frequently rail against what they view as overregulation or oppressive environmental rules. The alternative to those regulations, unfortunately, often is irresponsibility that has a negative impact for generations.