Illinois legislators have an opportunity this fall to do something important and help to regain some of the public’s trust in government. They can pass a bill to test for lead in the drinking water at Illinois’ schools. (Yes, believe it or not, no such testing is currently required….as if we needed a reason to think even less of the state’s leadership.)
Last May, the Illinois Senate passed Senate Bill 550, sponsored by State Senator Heather Steans, (D – Chicago 7th), which, among other things, requires elementary schools in the state to test for high levels of lead in drinking fountains and sinks. Environmental groups, such as the Illinois Environmental Council are pushing for the House to pass the bill in their November Veto Session. 1
Some organizations are pushing back. The Illinois Association of School Administrators is asking who will pay for this, and the Illinois Municipal League, an advocacy group for local governments, opposes the bill because they don’t want municipalities to pay. 1
All of this squabbling over “who pays” has got to stop. This is not the time for cutting corners. State and local governments need to work together with school districts to pay for this and get it done. Lead is too grave a danger to our children. People whose job it is to protect schoolchildren shouldn’t be risking the kids’ health over the question of who pays the few bucks to get the testing done.
And just so we know the stakes here: The World Health Organization says that there is no safe level of lead. “At high levels of exposure, lead attacks the brain and central nervous system to cause coma, convulsions, and even death. Children who survive severe lead poisoning may be left with mental retardation and behavioral disorders. At lower levels of exposure … that previously were considered safe, lead is now known to affect children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral changes such as reduced attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity, and toxicity to the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.” 2
This last sentence is especially important: once the damage is done, the effects of lead exposure cannot be fixed.
Just as troubling, lead poisoning has been linked to an increase in criminal behavior. The link between childhood lead exposure and violent behavior is well-established in scientific studies. Small doses can reduce IQ and essentially cause parts of the brain to short out, in particular the areas responsible for controlling aggression. Ann Evans, former chief of lead poisoning prevention at the Chicago Department of Public Health has researched childhood lead exposure extensively. Her peer-reviewed study found that exposure to lead during early childhood significantly increases the chance that a student will fail reading and math tests, even when controlling for other factors such as poverty, race, birth weight, and the mother’s education level. 3
Why is this important? Because studies show that students who fail to master reading skills are more likely to fall behind in later grades and drop out of high school. These children who have been exposed to lead struggle in school more than those who have not been exposed, and as teens, commit crimes more frequently, according to a report by researchers at the University of Cincinnati. 3
So, our government leaders know that lead in drinking water is extremely dangerous for children; now they need to act like they know it. A significant number of schools in Illinois have elevated lead levels in their drinking water. For example, recent testing in the City of Chicago showed that a whopping 99 schools have tested positive for levels of lead in drinking fountains above the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb). 4 And the problem is not just confined to Chicago. In Waukegan, testing showed that 10% of the schools had lead levels in drinking fountains above that same EPA guideline. In addition, 36 fountains had levels between 5 – 15 ppb, and one Elementary school had a shocking lead level of 225 ppb. 5 St. Charles, too, has found levels of lead as high as 10 times the amount deemed safe by the EPA. In all, 129 sinks or faucets in the district had problematic lead levels. 6 Who knows how many other districts have similar dangerous levels of lead?
Bottom line: It’s time to find out.
We cannot afford to send our children to school to learn, only to find out too late that the water at that very school has robbed them of their ability to learn.
Illinois’ leaders need to act now to require every school in the state to test for lead. The consequences of not knowing are too great. Are our elected officials really willing to rob our children of their potential, and their future over a fight about a very small amount of money? Are they willing to risk relegating many of them to a life of crime? I sure as hell hope not. The fate of the next generation is depending on them.