New Analysis: 78% of suburban Cook County schools test positive for lead in water fixtures

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Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG; Energy and Utilities Program Director, PIRG

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Illinois PIRG Education Fund today released first-of-its-kind analysis of new data obtained from the Illinois Department of Public Health finding that 78% of suburban Cook County schools tested positive for lead in at least one water fixture. The data, acquired through a Freedom of Information Act Request, includes testing results from schools across the state that tested school water fixtures using a 2 parts per billion (ppb) standard.

Illinois PIRG Education Fund also offered a new toolkit to help parents, teachers, and administrators get the lead out of schools’ drinking water and encouraged parents and teachers to put the toolkit on their “back to school” reading list.

“Our kids deserve safe drinking water at school,” said Abe Scarr, Director of Illinois PIRG Education Fund. “We want to give parents, teachers, and school administrators the tools they need to get the lead out.”

The data, yet to be aggregated by IDPH, came in the form of hundreds of documents, using different file types and formats for presenting data. In order to complete initial analysis in a timely manner, Illinois PIRG Education Fund focused on test results for suburban Cook County Schools. Of the 155 suburban Cook County schools identified in the data set, 121, or 78%,  tested above the 2 ppb threshold for at least one water fixture.

There is no safe level of lead. Lead in drinking water can result in a number of health risks such as harm to brain development and the nervous system. Exposure to lead can inhibit growth and development, damage the nervous and brain system, and can result in hearing, speech, learning, and behavioral problems.

Medical researchers estimate that more than 24 million children in America today risk losing IQ points due to low levels of lead. ADHD, anxiety and depression are also linked to exposure of even very low levels of lead.

Some schools had lead results of 50 ppb or higher. For example River Grove SD 85-5 had fixtures testing as high as 610 ppb. Stuart R Paddock School in Palatine had fixtures testing as high as 128 ppb. Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Hoffman Estates had fixtures testing as high as 578 ppb.

Many schools also had a significant number of their fixtures test positive for lead. For example, 59 of the 155 schools had 25% or more of their fixtures test above the 2 ppb threshold.

A state law passed in January of 2017 requires testing for lead in Illinois schools built prior to 1987 within the 2017 year. Schools built between 1987 and 2000 are required to have tested by the end of 2018. IDPH requires schools take remediation action for fixtures testing positive for lead.