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Op-Ed: After Newark and Flint -- Mandating Clean Water for All School Kids

No child takes a drink from a water fountain and thinks about whether that water is contaminated. At least, they shouldn’t have to

donald m. payne jr
Congressman Donald M. Payne, Jr.

When I traveled to Michigan last month as part of a Congressional delegation to hear directly from the families impacted by the Flint water crisis, I had a thought in the back of my head that a similar crisis could happen in New Jersey, particularly in Newark, our nation’s third-oldest city. After all, our outdated water infrastructure is in desperate need of repair, aged to the point at which it threatens higher levels of lead in our water.

My fear came true just days after I returned from Flint, when 30 Newark public schools -- nearly half of the district’s state-controlled public schools -- were found to have elevated levels of lead in their drinking water.

Regardless of the source -- paint or water -- lead is toxic, especially for young children, whose bodies are still developing. Exposure to high levels can lead to brain and central nervous-system damage. So when I hear families voice anger and frustration that their children may have been exposed to lead, I share their outrage. As a parent, I want to know that my children have access to clean, reliable water at school, and I want the same thing for the children of other families.

One of the best ways to do that is to test for lead in schools. That way, if elevated levels are discovered, we can take necessary steps to protect students. We should not be in the dark when it comes to what is in children’s drinking water, and lead testing is essential to identifying problems with that water.

Currently, however, school districts are not required to do so by law. While some schools may routinely conduct drinking-water quality testing, others may go years without testing at all.

We owe it to our children to close this gap in water-testing requirements. We can’t simply hope that their drinking water is safe.

That is why I introduced the TEST for Lead Act, legislation that reflects our commitment to America’s children by spurring the testing of drinking water for lead in public and charter schools.

The TEST for Lead Act amends the Safe Drinking Water Act to require states to help schools establish programs to test for lead in drinking water if those states receive funding from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. This fund provides federal funding for water systems and state safe-water programs.

The legislation would require schools to test drinking water, including water from faucets used for food preparation, sinks in bathrooms, and water fountains. Testing would be required at least biannually at schools built prior to 1996 and at least annually at schools built in 1996 or after, when regulations were extended to restrict the amount of lead in school faucets.

The TEST for Lead Act would also require local education agencies with jurisdiction over the schools to notify parents, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the state within 48 hours if a level of lead that exceeds a lead-action level, as identified by the EPA, is discovered.

No child takes a drink from a water fountain and thinks about whether that water is contaminated. At least, they shouldn’t have to. It’s our job to protect our children, and that means ensuring the safety of school drinking water.

I have called on my colleagues in Congress to support the TEST for Lead Act, and I will keep up the pressure on any member who downplays the impact of lead in schools.

We know that lead is toxic, and that exposure to lead can cause irreversible harm, robbing our children of their full potential. It’s time we do something about it.

Donald M. Payne, Jr. is a Democratic congressman representing New Jersey’s 10th congressional district.

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