Lead in the Water

Data reveals elevated levels of lead in Philadelphia school drinking water
Released by: PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

Lead is highly toxic, especially for children. Since the crisis in Flint, Michigan, many communities across the country have tested for and found lead in their drinking water - even in schools, where our children go to learn and play each day.

Both state and city law require lead testing in Philadelphia schools, but the testing process has been slow and remains incomplete. Four years into the District's testing process, only 29% of public schools have been tested and the results posted publicly. And while District officials are required to post all results within 30 days, it's unclear if the information has properly been posted for public access. Still, the data that is currently available for 1,932 outlets in Philadelphia’s public schools reveals district-wide lead contamination.

The review of self-reported lead testing results as of February 1st, 2022 by the School District showed:

  •  61% of outlets tested showed lead contamination (>1 ppb); 
  • Of the 65 schools where water outlets were tested for lead and publicly reported, 98% of the schools tested had at least one tap where lead was detected at 1 ppb or greater in the tap water; 
  • Some schools’ outlets showed extremely high levels of lead contamination, such as an outlet at The Duckrey School with 8,768 ppb. 

Given that 71% of schools still need to be tested, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many school buildings have at least some lead in their pipes, plumbing, or fixtures. And where there is lead, there is risk of contamination. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), even low levels of lead can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, and hyperactivity. Lead exposure has even been linked to damaging children’s central and peripheral nervous systems. More than 24 million children in the U.S. are at risk of losing IQ points due to low level lead exposure. Lead in tap water is a nationwide health problem, yet most states and school districts are not taking protective steps to reduce kids’ exposure to lead to the lowest possible level.

Philadelphia’s children deserve safe drinking water, especially at the schools where they go each day to learn and play. As this data shows, it is critical that Philadelphia decision-makers take immediate action to get the lead out.

The School District of Philadelphia should:

  • Replace all drinking fountains across the Philadelphia School District with water bottle filling stations, also known as hydration stations equipped with filters that remove lead. 
  • Install point of use filte rs on fountains, taps in classrooms, kitchen or used for cooking or beverage preparation . 
  • Shut off taps where tests have detected lead in the water until they are replaced with lead-removing filters. 
  • Ultimately, get the lead out. While filters are excellent short-term fixes, risks will remain as long as there is lead in our schools’ water delivery systems. The district should remove lead-bearing plumbing and fixtures over time, wherever feasible. 

The federal government should: 

  • Set a 1ppb limit for lead in school drinking water, reduced from the current 15 ppb action limit; 
  • Provide substantial funding, beyond the Bipartisan Infrastructure package passed in November 2021, to help states and communities remove lead in water infrastructure, including in schools; and 
  • Marshal the authority of all relevant federal agencies to protect public health from contamination of drinking water