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Advocacy groups launch campaign to eliminate lead from Philadelphia schools’ drinking water

Less than 1% of district’s stimulus funds could fix every fountain in every school
For Immediate Release

PHILADELPHIA -- A coalition of citizen-based organizations launched a new citywide campaign Thursday to convince the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) to comprehensively address lead contamination in drinking water in the city's public schools. PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality (BCC) and the PennPIRG Education Fund are calling on SDP to allocate approximately $2 million to $4 million to replace every water fountain in Philadelphia’s schools with lead-filtering water bottle-filling stations. While that may seem like a lot of money, it’s less than one-half of 1 percent of the $1.1 billion in stimulus funds that the federal government gave to the school district.

“We all care deeply about protecting Philadelphia's children from lead contamination,” said Emma Horst-Martz, PennPIRG Education Fund Advocate. “We’re mobilizing this widespread support to convince school district officials that with a wise, targeted and fairly small investment of their stimulus dollars, they can solve this problem once and for all.”

Health experts agree that lead exposure is unsafe at any level. It has been linked to numerous health problems in children, including damage to the nervous system, learning disabilities and impaired hearing. Since the United States began limiting lead exposure from many sources in the 1970s, Americans’ blood lead levels have decreased dramatically and the average adult’s IQ is now 4 to 5 points higher. 

Lead contamination of school drinking water is particularly dangerous because kids spend so much time in school buildings. The federal stimulus funds offer the city’s schools an unprecedented opportunity to eliminate most of the lead in their drinking water. SDP could replace every antiquated fountain that poses a threat of lead contamination with a lead-filtering hydration station. These bottle-filling stations will protect children from lead in the long term, and, since kids won’t put their unmasked faces in them, they may help prevent the spread of COVID-19 for the (hopefully short-term) course of the pandemic. Beyond these positive health implications, studies show youth prefer hydration stations over traditional water fountains, so they drink more water.

“It is very important to the mission of The Black Church Center that we work to protect the places and spaces where our communities and constituencies can thrive,” said Shannon Williams, Executive Director of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality. “Therefore, we will work to protect the health and safety of our communities, and this includes ensuring that our children have clean water options in schools.”

The coalition has shared this proposal with senior officials at the SDP. However, despite the district’s own recent data, which shows that nearly 15 percent of all water samples taken from school drinking sources had elevated levels of lead, no one from the SDP has yet responded. The Philadelphia city council could help. Earlier this month, while kicking off the new city council session, two councilmembers announced their own plans to remediate environmental health threats in the city's public schools.

“Schools should be safe places for our kids to learn and play, and now the School District of Philadelphia has an opportunity to comprehensively protect our kids from lead in drinking water once and for all,” said PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center’s Executive Director David Masur. “We now have to see if District officials will take hold of this opportunity, or potentially continue to unnecessarily put the health of Philadelphia school kids at risk. ”

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PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center is dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We work to protect the places we love, advance the environmental values we share, and win real results for our environment. For more information, visit www.PennEnvironmentCenter.org.

PennPIRG (Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful interests that threaten our health, safety, and wellbeing. To learn more, visit our website at www.pennpirgedfund.org.

The Black Church Center for Justice and Equality is a non profit organization with the mission to reaffirm the social justice tradition of the Black Church by providing a platform for progressive theological debate, public policy advocacy, and public engagement that amplifies the voices of progressive African-American faith leaders. For more about BCC, visit https://theblackchurch.net/.