There’s a lot of bad stuff in the environment that can make children sick, but nothing quite as penetrating and frightening as lead. The longer and higher the amount of exposure, the more dangerous it gets. In its most toxic state, lead poisoning causes cognitive impairments, language disorders, memory problems and a host of other scary, irreversible disabilities.
The public health community and government loudly sounded the alarm when it was discovered that lead in paint used in housing and on toys was hurting children. So was lead in gasoline. Identification and elimination of these sources of lead dramatically reduced children’s risk of debilitating exposure to this dangerous chemical.
That is why we could not believe it when schools around the Fox Valley balked at a new initiative that requires Illinois elementary schools and day care centers to begin testing their water sources for lead. A bill passed by the Illinois General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday takes effect immediately in schools built before 2000 that house programs up to the fifth grade.
Leaders in West Aurora District 129 and Burlington Central District 301 labeled it an unfunded mandate in an article in the Courier-News and Beacon-News. Other area school districts had less critical but still unenthusiastic reactions. East Aurora District 131 officials said they would comply with the law but have never tested the water because it was never raised as a concern in the schools. In Elgin-area School District U46, officials have focused on installing modern water fountains with filters.
This law is not driven by panic. It is driven by a lack of knowledge. Without testing, we have no way of knowing if there is a lead crisis in the local schools today. The point of the law is to get solid information on how much lead is in the water, if any, and then make sound decisions on mitigation and treatment.
We applaud the legislation, which was sponsored by some local lawmakers, including state Sen. Mike Noland, of Elgin, who has since left the General Assembly, and state Sen. Linda Holmes, of Aurora. State Reps. Linda Chapa LaVia and Stephanie Kifowit, of Aurora, and state Rep. Jack Franks, of Woodstock, who also has left the Legislature, were House sponsors.
The tests aren’t free. And school districts will have to pay for them. But, in light of the focus on the danger of lead in drinking water following a crisis in Flint, Mich., categorizing the legislation as just another unfunded mandate seems callous.
We understand the frustration. Springfield has a habit of issuing imprudent and expensive edicts to local schools dictating what they should teach and how they should teach it. This is not one of them. It is a call to action to make sure children are safe from lead. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics state there is no level of exposure to lead that can be deemed safe. Prevention is the key to stopping lead from destroying our children’s brains.
The legislation requires schools to alert parents if lead levels are high. We would urge school districts, as public bodies, to also alert the community at large. In fact, water sampling results should be easily accessible on websites with explanations about what they mean in terms that the average person can understand.
We, too, wish there was no need for this law — because lawmakers and the governor had found that schools had been so proactive in monitoring lead in their water through the years that it wasn’t necessary to force them to do this job. St. Charles District 303 invested $30,000 in testing without the mandate. Good thing, too. The tests found 23 water fountains that exceeded lead levels.
The complaint that the state hasn’t sent money along with its demand to test for lead is a valid one. The cost would best be shared by the state, school districts, the federal government and perhaps local health departments. But a litmus test for good government is how well it keeps people, particularly its youngest and most vulnerable, from harm. Which, in this case, is making sure lead isn’t compromising public education by making children too sick to learn.