AUGUSTA — Prodded by a new environmental report that gives Maine a failing grade for its efforts to prevent schoolchildren from drinking water with high lead levels, legislators are eyeing, as a first step, a plan to have every school carry out more testing.

“We should ensure that our kids aren’t being exposed to lead, no matter where their water comes from or the pipes it travels through,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, who is sponsoring a bill to press the proposal.

Public health advocates are increasingly concerned that many youngsters are exposed to lead leaching into public drinking water from old lead solder and fittings, a big worry in Maine, which has especially corrosive water.

A report issued this month by the Environment Maine Research & Policy Center gave Maine an F for the way it handles the issue but also gave another 11 states failing marks in its critical analysis of how 16 states are dealing with lead in school drinking water.

The bill would require schools to take water samples annually that would be tested for lead. Use of the water would be barred at schools where the results show a problem, raising questions about how schools will pay for any updates required.

Too much lead, which typically comes from old paint, can lead to learning disabilities, IQ reductions and other problems that undermine the chance a child will thrive. Partly because of old housing, Lewiston and Auburn have the highest rate of childhood lead-poisoning in Maine.

Laura Dorle of Environment Maine said, “Schools should be safe places for our kids to learn and play,” but the state isn’t doing enough to protect students.

“Kids’ developing brains are especially susceptible to highly toxic lead, so it’s time to get the lead out,” she said at a recent news conference at the State House.

The proposal lays out the responsibility for handling the tests within state government, but it’s possible there are better ways to proceed administratively.

Pat Hinckley, transportation and facilities administrator for the Department of Education, said the measure “sounds well-meaning” but Hinckley has concerns about whether the bureaucratic methods it calls for are “the most efficient and effective way to implement a water-testing initiative for schools.”

Nobody else testified against the proposal at a recent hearing, though a few people pointed out wording they thought would improve the measure. A fiscal note determined that any increased cost for the Department of Health and Human Services would be offset by an increase in revenue from the charge for each test.

Lynn Farrington, president of the Maine section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, told lawmakers, “The amount of lead pipes remaining in Maine’s distribution systems is very small” and that Maine’s water systems “have successfully implemented and maintained corrosion control treatment strategies to reduce the potential for lead or copper leaching from public infrastructure.”

But, she said, testing samples from schools and day care facilities is a good idea because “water quality issues may arise due to a building’s internal plumbing.”

John Kosinski, representing the Maine Education Association, said a random test at a water fountain at a Benton elementary school found lead levels of 670 parts per billion, which is 45 times the federal standard. In Yarmouth, he said, tests at two schools also found faucets dispensing water with high levels of lead.

“No level of lead exposure is safe,” said Rebecca Boulos, executive director of the Maine Public Health Association. “We are putting our children at risk and need to act now to prevent further exposure to this harmful mineral.”

“Students, especially young children, need water to thrive,” Kosinski said. “The least we can do is make sure that the water they drink at their schools does not expose them to dangerous metals that may impair their health.”

Victoria Wallack, communications and governmental relations director for the Maine School Management Association, said the state’s school boards and superintendents back the testing plan.

“Recent voluntary testing by some of our districts has shown lead traces in the water, the most simple to address tied to fixtures like faucets containing lead or lead solder,” she told the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.

But, she said, there ought to be a protocol that “recognizes the complexity and enormity of the task” and help to finance cases that require substantial work to replace plumbing or make renovations.

Boulos said, “It would be unjust to require schools to increase their testing, and possibly costs incurred, without having a clear action plan if lead contamination is detected, particularly because the schools most likely to have outdated plumbing are schools in lower-income districts, which may not have the funds to support changes to their water infrastructure.”

She suggested legislators explore funding options for schools that need costly changes to ensure safe water for youngsters.

Andy Jones, a community organizer with Toxics Action Center, said he recalls chugging water after gym class at the old Stratton Elementary School in Eustis, with water quality the last thing on his mind.

Without testing, he said, “We are placing our children in an environment that is supposed to be safe, but it’s not.”

“Children should not be exposed to a known neurotoxin in the very place where they are supposed to be growing their brains,” Jones said.

Millett’s bill would also require the state to disclose the results of schools’ lead tests to the public.

“We all have a right to know when the water isn’t safe,” the senator said.

In this Jan. 25, 2016, file photo, third-grader Mayae Carradine listens to her teacher as she looks through a line of bottled water at Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary School, in Flint, Michigan. In response to the city’s lead-tainted water crisis, the school hands out bottles of water to students daily. School officials across the country are testing for lead in the water flowing from classroom sinks and cafeteria faucets to reassure anxious parents and to take action if they are surprised by the results.
AP

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