New Illinois Law Requires Schools to Test Water for Lead

by | January 17, 2017

By Kelsey Landis

Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation into law Monday requiring schools and day cares to test for lead in drinking water sources, though several local schools have already conducted testing in recent years and might be compliant under the new rules.

The law requires day cares, schools with students up to fifth grade and schools built before 2000 to test drinking water. Schools and day cares will have to foot the bill and notify parents of the results.

Belleville districts 118 and 201, O'Fallon districts 90 and 203, Shiloh 85, and Smithton have already conducted lead testing in an effort to be proactive after a report showed dangerous lead levels were present in some St. Louis public schools. The dangers of lead contamination came into the national spotlight after lead-tainted drinking water in Flint, Mich. caused a public health crisis.

"After the scare and uncertainty after testing at some of the schools in the areas around, we went ahead and did our test in the late summer," said Belleville District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier. "We felt like it was a good idea to get a baseline of where the lead levels were in our schools."

The results showed little to no presence of lead, which represents a serious health hazard to young children in particular. District 201 spent about $10,000 on the test.

Though lead testing cost local school districts thousands of dollars each, superintendents say the efforts were well worth the price -- and some schools might already be compliant under the new law. The Illinois Department of Public Health will accept results from tests conducted after 2013, according to Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

Schools that have already conducted testing will be required to submit the method and results to the public health department. The department will review the results and then provide a waiver if schools complied with the new rules. The law requires that every tap be tested, so the school will have to test any taps that might not have been examined. Taps that have already been tested will not have to be tested again, Walling said.

Smithon District 130 tested the elementary school for lead two years ago, just in time to qualify for the waiver, said Superintendent Susan Homes. The original part of the school was built in 1952. She said the decision to test early on came from a desire to be proactive.

"If you're a grandparent, a parent, it gives you a sense of well being that isn't a question in your mind. If your school has tested it, you know it's safe," Homes said.

Under the new rule, the Smithon school will have to test a few water fountains at the 65-year-old building that weren't originally tested, Homes said, but she said she is in favor of the bill, despite the additional cost. Smithton paid $3,900 for both lead and air quality testing, and no detectable amounts of lead were found in the water.

"I think when schools are faced with unfunded mandates and cause us to spend more money, I know some districts may not have invested money in it. I really think the law is good, though, in that it does force every school district to take a look at that," Homes said.

Paying for the mandate could be a concern for some school districts, said Belleville District 118 Superintendent Matt Klosterman, though he said testing for lead ensures students, staff and faculty are safe. Of the 271 drinking water sources that were tested at all school buildings in the district, 29 had elevated levels of lead, according to Klosterman. Those sites were all removed from service.

"We do what we have to do to provide safety and security to our folks," Klosterman said.

Though the new law only applies to certain schools, the ultimate goal is to eliminate lead contamination "completely" in all locations, said Jen Walling, the executive director of the state environmental council.

"We think that this bill is a bill that puts Illinois at the forefront in the nation in terms of testing for lead in schools, thereby working to reduce exposure of lead to children. We think it's the first step. The end goal should be removal of lead completely," Walling said.

That's an assessment the Belleville high school superintendent agrees with.

"I think that's a positive goal for us to strive for," Dosier said.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this story.

(c)2017 the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.)