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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, March 21, 2019.....Massachusetts brought home a "D" on its latest report card in responding to lead drinking water in schools, an issue that spurred lawmakers to propose requiring all schools and early education centers ensure that children have access to safe drinking water.

Rep. Lori Ehrlich spoke about legislation she filed to improve the quality of drinking water in schools by installing lead filtration systems.

"First and foremost, in 2019, the Commonwealth should not send its kids to a school where the water they drink can damage their health," Sen. Joan Lovely said. "It's just completely unacceptable."

The U.S. Public Interest Research Groups and Environment America Research and Policy Center on Thursday released "Get the Lead Out: Ensuring Safe Drinking Water for Our Children at School," which looked at lead levels in drinking water around the country and graded states on their policy responses.

Massachusetts's "D" grade -- the same grade it earned in the 2017 edition of the report -- drew attention Thursday from advocates from the Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association, Environment Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Groups holding a lobby day at the State House.

Lovely and Rep. Lori Ehrlich both spoke in support of their bill (H 774/S 500), which seeks to eliminate lead in drinking water in schools by requiring annual testing of all water fountains and faucets for lead. If the tests show elevated levels, the institution would be required to immediately turn off that fountain or faucet.

"This bill goes step by step to remove lead from school drinking water while providing clear guidance for schools and child-care centers describing what is required of them," Ehrlich said. "It's time for us to act and with this bill, we will not only have real data on lead in school drinking water but a mandate to act."

Currently, Massachusetts has an optional lead testing program but not all schools participate. The program does not require that any action be taken if high lead levels are found.

Of the 980 schools that have participated in the optional program and 43,000 taps tested since 2016, 59 percent of taps tested positive for lead, the report said citing state data.

The bill would establish the lead level standard for schools and child-care centers of one part per billion, so any water that tests to have lead levels higher than that would be deemed unsafe.

For comparison, the report stated that Leicester Memorial Elementary had a tap that tested at 22,400 parts per billion.

Dr. Sean Palfrey, medical director of the Boston Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at Boston Medical Center, spoke about the dangers of lead poisoning for children.

"What we know about lead is that even at the tiniest doses it is toxic," he said.

The report's authors also issued a new grade for Massachusetts -- effective only if the Lovely/Ehrlich bill passes.

"If adopted, the proposed policy from Massachusetts, H 774/S 500, would be the strongest policy nationwide based on our grading structure, earning the Bay State an 'A,'" the report said.

Under the proposed bill, schools and child-care centers would also have to make testing information easily available, as well as submit a plan of action and status report to the Department of Environmental Protection, and notify parents, teachers, and employee organizations that the information is also available to the public.

Public water systems would be required to fully replace lead service lines at every school district, charter school, nonpublic school, and child care center they serve within three years of the bill's passage.

At the location of water fountains, schools would have to post the maintenance schedule and log for filters at that fountain, the most recent test conducted, the date of the next test and if the fountain is closed because of high lead levels.

If a school or child care center is unable to comply with the standards under the bill, they may request a hardship waiver, but must first notify parents and hold at least one public meeting.

Lastly, to help pay for the required renovations, the bill would create the Lead in School Drinking Water Trust Fund, which would be administered by the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, with consultation from DEP.

Gov. Charlie Baker's proposed fiscal year 2020 budget includes $20 million to help schools eliminate lead from drinking water.

When the Brockton school district tested the water in its buildings, 400 of the samples came back positive for lead. Deputy Superintendent of Operations Michael Thomas drew on the district's emergency contingency budget to address the problem. Since then, the school district has replaced over 100 water fountains and over 300 faucets across 23 buildings, he said.

Thomas spoke at Thursday's event about the choice to tackle the problem head-on.

"It's just the right thing to do," he said. "We're known as the City of Champions so we try to stay above the curve in everything we do. Again, the simple answer is, it's the right thing to do for kids."

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