Lead in School Drinking Water—What Families Need to Know

sb550-fountainNote: Illinois PTA has an advocacy campaign running now through January 10, 2017 to urge the Illinois House to join the Illinois Senate in passing SB550, a bill that would require testing every unique drinking water source in all Illinois schools and report high lead levels to families.

If you were looking to make a pipe, lead looks to be just about the perfect metal to use. It’s fairly soft as metals go, so it’s easy to work with. It doesn’t react strongly with water like iron or steel, so water running in the pipe or in the ground around the pipe won’t make the pipe corrode to a significant. It’s relatively abundant and has been mined for millennia. It seems like the perfect metal for the job; so much so that the word plumbing comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. There’s just one problem with lead—exposure to it causes numerous health problems for adults and especially children.

How Lead Gets in Drinking Water

While lead doesn’t react strongly to water like iron or steel, it still corrodes (like iron rusts) when exposed to water, especially if the water has high acidity or low mineral content. Lead poisoning in ancient Rome was not due to its lead pipes, as the high calcium levels in the water formed a protective layer inside the pipes between the lead pipe and the water. It was the use of lead cookware and as an additive in food (e.g., as a preservative in wine) that resulted in lead poisoning.

In the United States, lead pipes were used not only in indoor plumbing but also in the line that ran from the water main to the house. When copper pipes were used, they were often connected with brass fittings (which contain small amounts of lead to make them easier to make) or with lead solder. The longer that water is exposed to these lead-containing items, the higher the lead level in the water. This is why testing for lead in water uses the “first draw” (i.e., water that has sat in the pipe for a while) for the sample.

Homes and buildings built after 1986 are less likely to have lead pipes, brass fixtures and fittings, or lead solder. That is due to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) using the Safe Drinking Water Act to reduce the maximum allowable lead content of pipes, fittings, fixtures, and solder in order to be considered safe to use for drinking water.

Lead Exposure Standards

The EPA is required under the Safe Drinking Water Act to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no health effects are likely to occur. These are non-enforceable health goals based only on possible health risks and are known as Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs). For lead in drinking water, the MCLG is zero because any exposure to lead can lead to health issues and because lead bioaccumulates (i.e., builds up over time) in the body.

Since drinking water suppliers likely cannot completely eliminate lead, EPA has set an “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb). One part per billion is like one grain of sand in a sandbox, one drop of ink in a 14,000 gallon backyard swimming pool, or one second in 32 years. The 15 ppb action level was set based on costs and benefits of removing lead from drinking water, not on safety like the MCLG above.

When measuring lead exposure in people, a blood sample is tested. For adults, the level at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends taking action is 10 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL). For children, the level is only 5 μg/dL due to the increased health effects of lead on their development and their smaller body size.

It is important to note that drinking water is not the only way that children are exposed to lead. Lead in paint, dust, sole, air, and food may also be sources of lead exposure for children. EPA estimates that drinking water can make up to 20% or more of a person’s exposure to lead. For infants who consume mostly powdered formula mixed with water, 40% to 60% of their exposure can come from drinking water.

Health Effects of Lead on Children

Even low levels of lead exposure in children can result in:

  • Behavior and learning problems
  • Permanent intellectual disability
  • Reduced ability to pay attention
  • Slowed growth
  • Hearing problems
  • Kidney failure
  • Anemia

In addition, lead builds up in our bodies over time, where it is stored in bones along with calcium. During pregnancy, lead is released from the mother’s bones along with maternal calcium and is used to help form the bones of the fetus. This is especially true if the mother does not have enough calcium in her diet. Lead in the mother’s bloodstream can also cross the placental barrier, exposing the fetus to lead. This in utero lead exposure can result in reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth.

School Drinking Water and Lead

As noted above, lead levels in drinking water increase over time as the water sits without moving. For schools, this effect can be particularly important because of how drinking water is used in schools. Afternoon and evening activities at a school are often limited to only part of the school building, meaning that water fountains and sinks in other parts of the building do not run water from the end of the school day until the beginning of the next day. Water is also likely to sit in pipes over weekends and school holidays and breaks.

What You Can Do

The first thing to do is join Illinois PTA’s campaign to pass SB550 in the Illinois House. This bill, which has already passed the Illinois Senate, would require every school in Illinois—public, private, and parochial—to test for lead in the water of every unique drinking water source and to report high lead levels to families. The campaign has a prewritten e-mail to send to your Illinois representative urging them to support SB550 during the lame duck session on January 9-10, 2017. All you need to do is provide your name, contact information, and address (so Voter Voice can look up who your representative is for you). It only takes a minute of your time to speak up for safe school drinking water.

In addition, the EPA has an information page on lead in drinking water, as does the CDC. EPA also provides a Safe Drinking Water Hotline that you can call or e-mail to get your questions answered. The CDC has a general lead exposure information page and information on how to prevent children’s exposure to lead.

The Illinois ESSA Plan Draft #2 Highlights

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The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) became law almost one year ago. During this past year, Illinois and every other state has been working hard to develop a plan to implement ESSA in their state, with the final plan due to the US Department of Education on April 3, 2017. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has released the second draft of the state plan, with comments due to ISBE by December 27, 2016. Illinois PTA has been representing the voice of families and children on several of the state committees making recommendations during the creation of the plan. Here are the highlights of what is currently in the state plan.

Accountability

Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), school accountability was determined by the results of a single test. In Illinois, that was the ISAT for grades 3 through 8 and the PSAE/ACT for high school juniors. Schools needed to have a specific percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards as well as the same percentage of students in subgroups such as African-American students, Hispanic students, and special education students also meeting or exceeding state standards. Schools that did not meet those percentages (known as making Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP) were labeled as failing and subject to penalties. As a result, many states lowered their state standards and simplified their state tests to get as many students meeting or exceeding those lower standards.

With the development of the Common Core State Standards, implemented in Illinois as the New Illinois Learning Standards, a set of high-quality, high-expectation standards replace the older, lower standards. With those new standards came a new assessment aligned to those standards, the PARCC assessment. The PARCC test required students to demonstrate proficiency in what they had learned, not just memorized facts. But school accountability was still based on NCLB and its AYP standard. Under ESSA, that has changed significantly.

ESSA requires states to develop their own school accountability measure. The measure must include:

  • Student assessment
  • A second academic indicator (e.g., student growth, high school graduation rate, etc.)
  • English language proficiency
  • At least one other indicator of school quality or student success (e.g., Advanced Placement classes, family engagement, discipline reports, attendance, etc.)

States will determine what indicators they will use and how to weight each one in their accountability measure, but academic indicators must be given “significantly more” weight than school quality/student success indicators. It is unclear what the US Department of Education considers significantly more weight at this time, but Illinois’s draft plan #2 considers three different weights (70/30, 60/40, and 51/49). Depending on the weighting chosen, the annual assessment (now PARCC for grades 3-8 and the SAT for high school) will have a different level of importance in determining school accountability.

Illinois is currently considering student growth for its second academic indicator for at least grades 3 through 8 and possibly for high school as well. Draft plan #2 had four different growth models that are being looked at for the lower grades. A second high school assessment such as the PSAT may be needed to adequately growth at the high school level, though that approach comes with additional costs to the state. It may be possible to use a student’s 8th grade PARCC results as part of a high school growth indicator, but since that assessment is not used across the country or in private schools, it would be difficult to measure student growth for students who enter the Illinois public schools during their high school years.

Other accountability issues addressed in the draft plan include:

  • Reducing the size of identified subgroups to 20 (i.e., a school will only need 20 Pacific Islanders, for example, for those students’ data to be reported as a subgroup).
  • Creating a “Former English Language Learner (ELL)” subgroup to continue to track their progress after they are considered proficient in English.
  • Developing reporting for new groups, including homeless students, students in foster care, and students with a parent serving in the military.

ISBE is also reviewing all of the required data that schools and districts must provide to ensure that additional reporting requirements are not overly burdensome.

English Language Learners

Illinois has a state policy of educating students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) in their native language for core content or, where the native language is not as common, at least providing support in their native language, while also teaching English as a second language. As part of supporting ELLs, Illinois has been participating in the development of English language proficiency standards and assessments that incorporate the current college- and career-ready goals. ISBE will be meeting with stakeholders to determine what will constitute English language proficiency, with recommendations submitted by June 30, 2017.

ESSA also requires states to identify languages other than English that are present to a significant extent among the student population. For Illinois, 10 languages meet that standard, with Spanish being the most common. Illinois currently provides PARCC instructions in those 10 languages, but only the PARCC math assessment has been trans-adapted into Spanish. ISBE is considering public comments that suggested providing assessments in languages other than English when 30% or more of the ELL students speak the same language.

Title I Funding

In order to receive Title I funding, each school district in Illinois must submit a plan that was developed in consultation with stakeholders (e.g., families). Many of the required elements in this plan are similar to those under NCLB, but new requirements include:

  • How the district will identify and address disparities in teacher distribution.
  • How the district will ensure that every child is taught by a highly effective teacher.
  • How the district will support efforts to reduce the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom, including high rates for specific subgroups of students.

ISBE is also adding two more requirements to the plan based on public comment that are not required under ESSA:

  • How the district will identify and address disparities in library resources.
  • How the district will support efforts to encourage and support the arts.

Providing Public Comment

Illinois PTA already serves on several of the committees helping ISBE to develop the state ESSA implementation plan. If you are interested in providing comments directly to ISBE regarding draft plan #2, submit them to essa@isbe.net no later than December 27, 2016. Be sure to include your name or your organization’s name, as well as the section number and the page number that your comment is addressing.

Illinois PTA Advocacy Day in Springfield a Big Success

It was a beautiful fall day in Springfield on Tuesday as Illinois PTA members gathered for Advocacy Day. The Illinois PTA table in the capitol rotunda welcomed advocates and greeted passersby all day. By the end of the day, 79 legislators or their staff had had face-to-face contact with Illinois PTA. If you couldn’t make it to Springfield on November 15th, you can still contact your legislators and the governor through our online campaign.

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Illinois PTA advocates were speaking out on three focus issues throughout the day:

  • The lack of a state budget for the last 17 months
  • Senate Bill 550, which would require testing for lead in drinking water in all Illinois schools
  • House Bill 5726, which would ban the sale of energy drinks to minors

The budget issue was generally greeted with a lot of sympathy and head nodding, but also a bit of weariness as legislators and staff have likely been hearing about the issue on an almost daily basis for the last year and a half. Our other two issues drew much more interest, and if you add your voice to PTA’s one voice through our online Advocacy Day campaign, we may be able to get both bills passed during the veto session.

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Participating in the online campaign is easy and only takes a couple of minutes. Each letter is already written for you, though you can modify it if you wish to add information on how these issues are affecting your family, your schools, or your community. Then add your signature, type in your e-mail address so your legislators can get back to you, and include your zip code (and maybe your street address) so Voter Voice can look up your state representative and state senator for you. Finish off by hitting the “Continue” button, confirming your contact information, and sending off the letters.

Help protect Illinois children and families by speaking up today. The fall veto session only runs through next week, so the faster you act, the more time there is for legislators to act on these critical issues.

 

Join Us for Illinois PTA Advocacy Day in Springfield on November 15th

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November 15, 2016 is Parents Day as part of American Education Week. It is also Illinois PTA Advocacy Day in Springfield, an opportunity for PTA members from across Illinois to speak up for children.

While you may not feel like you can be a PTA advocate, you likely already have been one. If you have spoken to your child’s teacher or your building’s principal about an issue, you have been an advocate. Illinois PTA has prepared to make Advocacy Day in Springfield as simple as possible, even if you have never spoken to a legislator before.

From 9:30am until 2:00pm, Illinois PTA will have an information table in the capitol rotunda. Come to the table to get handouts to give to your legislators, talking points to cover, and if you have pre-registered to attend Advocacy Day in Springfield, your free Illinois PTA business cards. We will have experienced PTA advocates whom you can follow as they speak with legislators and who can accompany you while you attend the meetings you have scheduled with your legislators.

Illinois PTA will also be presenting a webinar series to prepare you to advocate in Springfield. Each webinar will start at 7:30pm and last for approximately 30 to 45 minutes. The webinars will be recorded and made available for those who cannot attend the webinar. Illinois PTA uses GoToMeeting for its webinars, which can be attended using your browser or an app for Android, iOS, and Windows. The webinars will be:

  • September 29: Illinois PTA Legislative Priorities
    Learn about the key issues affecting children that the Illinois PTA is focused on this year, including juvenile justice, children’s health and safety, family engagement, school funding, and the state budget.
  • October 13: How to Meet with Legislators
    Learn how to contact your legislator to schedule a meeting in Springfield or in their district office, what to say and do when you meet them, and how to use Illinois PTA materials to support your arguments.
  • October 27: Advocate the PTA Way
    PTA advocacy is not just with legislators in Springfield and Washington. Learn how you and your PTA can advocate at your local level with your school district and school board, school principal, or community. We will also cover IRS requirements on PTA advocacy and PTA guidance on issues such as teacher strikes and bond referenda.
  • November 10: Hot Topics Briefing
    Learn the latest on the topics we will be advocating on in Springfield on November 15th. We will cover both the background of these issues and Illinois PTA talking points you can use with your legislator.

Sign up to attend one or more of the webinars and to join us for Illinois PTA Advocacy Day in Springfield on November 15th.