Response to the School District of Philadelphia

Get the Lead Out Campaign

PennPIRG Education Fund

After the release of an important study last week about the threat of lead in the drinking water of Philadelphia’s public schools, Philadelphia School District officials sent a misleading email to parents which deserves a response. 

First, the District states that the “data and findings” in the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group’s (PennPIRG) report are “inaccurate.” This is an ironic claim to be made by District officials, since all of the data used in the study is self-reported data directly from the School District of Philadelphia’s own website. To state that it’s inaccurate means that the district is either taking inaccurate samples of drinking water in schools or posting inaccurate data on their website. Either one is a significant breach of the public’s trust. 

Secondly, in the letter sent to parents, District officials acknowledge that they knowingly allow unsafe levels of lead in drinking water to occur even after identifying the contaminated water outlets. In the letter, District officials state that they are only shutting down outlets that are above the citywide standard for school water outlets. Yet of the School District’s self-reported data,  861 outlets tested by the District fall between the health-based standard recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, CDC and U.S. EPA (1 ppb), and the current legal standard under city code (10 ppb). 

In fact, even the Trump administration publicly acknowledged that there is no safe level of lead in school drinking water in their 2018 3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools and Child Care Facilities report. The fact that the District would position themselves further out on a limb than the previous presidential administration and knowingly put children at risk to this loophole is a travesty. And to argue that we shouldn’t take action because the currently enforceable limits allow the District to take chances with our children’s health is insulting to parents across the city. 

Third, the letter itself is rife with data errors. The clearest example of this is the District referring to a USEPA standard of 20 ppb, yet EPA’s standard is 15 ppb. And what the District failed to mention in their letter is that thegoal level put forth by EPA is zero ppb.  Ultimately, it is also factually incorrect to state that the District has to comply with federal drinking water standards, since there are no such standards under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act for the vast majority of schools across the U.S.–only schools on well water must comply with the federal lead and copper rule, so the District’s point is misleading and irrelevant. 

There are numerous other misleading and factually incorrect statements made in the school district’s letter. This includes:

The District letter states: 

  1. “We have an ongoing and comprehensive safe water testing program that launched in 2016. All 269 District buildings were sampled once through 2017 and the second cycle of sampling began in April 2019, with completion planned for April 2023, which is in alignment with the City’s five-year cycle requirements.” 

This is misleading: City Council’s ordinance required compliance to begin on August 1, 2017. 2016 testing did not fall under the city’s law. But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend it did. The 2017 law also requires testing every 60 months (5 years) for every outlet at every school.  That means that any schools tested in 2016 must be retested by December 31, 2021. Yet with a simple search of data on the District’s website, it’s clear that testing did NOT occur again in 2021. 

For example: Ethan Allen school was tested in ‘16 but not since (violating the 5-year window for testing). This is also true for Barton, Blankenburg, Bryant, Cassidy, Mayfair and others that were tested in ‘16 but not tested again since. These are all clear violations of the law and the spirit of Mr. McNeil’s statement in the District’s letter. 

Additionally, the District seems to imply that their 2016 testing mirrored the criteria set out in Philadelphia’s 2017 law. This appears incorrect: the District’s 2016 testing does not appear comprehensive, with many outlets in schools not included in the available data from the school district. This is why many if not all of the schools tested in 2016 had significantly fewer tests than the current testing started in 2017. 

For example, the District reported testing 18 outlets at J.B. Kelly Elementary School on October 27, 2016. Yet three years later, 28 outlets were tested. This shows either erroneous reporting by the District, a significant change in the scope of testing done between 2016-2019, or under-reporting in 2016 for unknown reasons.  

Maybe most notable in the J.B. Kelly example is what happened with the sample results over those two testing periods: In the 2016 samples, two active kindergarten classroom drinking fountains (rooms K-1 and K-4) came back with lead levels of 1.1 ppb and 1.2 ppb, respectively. Yet results for the testing just 3 years later during the 2019 sampling showed the K-1 drinking fountain with 2,972 ppb and the K-4 fountain with 21.3 ppb. While district officials turned off these two fountains only after when receiving the results, it meant that young children were drinking water from very contaminated fountains up until that point. Two other rooms in J.B. Kelly also came back with elevated lead tests. For how long that occurred is unclear. But it’s one more reason why a rapid and districtwide replacement of all antiquated fountains with lead-filtering hydration stations is needed.

  1. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we needed to pause sampling when school buildings were closed to in-person learning because the lack of water movement in our buildings would have created sample results inconsistent with regular water use.  We resumed testing in occupied school buildings during hybrid learning starting in April 2021, focusing first on elementary schools.”

This District statement is misleading, at best. Even before the pandemic, the District’s testing regimen was far behind schedule. With 269 buildings, the District would need to average testing all outlets each year in 54 schools. Yet in 2018–prior to the pandemic and a full year after the passage of the city ordinance–the District only tested 11 schools. At that rate, it would take the District nearly 20 years to test all outlets in all schools. 

In 2019, testing was closer to the yearly average needed to comply with the law (44). But in 2020 in the 2 months before the pandemic, the District tested only one school. And in 2021–after the 13-month pause in testing mentioned by Mr. McNeil–the district only tested 9 schools between April-December 2021.To date, no schools have been tested in 2022. 

There are numerous other errors and inferences in Mr. McNeil’s letter that we would love to discuss with School District officials, the Board of Education, or local elected officials. 

Lastly, PennPIRG, PennEnvironment, and the Black Church Center for Justice and Equity made numerous requests to meet with multiple district officials about this threat between August 2021-February 2022. This includes emails directly to Dr. Hite, Reggie McNeil and Steven Link. We drafted a memo that was sent to senior District officials laying out a viable solution to this problem and sent it to school officials in the Fall of 2021. PennPIRG staff repeatedly testified before City Council and the Board of Education about the threat of lead in drinking water in Philadelphia’s schools, and our proposed solution. In nearly every case, our effort to communicate with District officials was met with no response. Blame for the District’s discomfort with the public scrutiny over their own data for lead in school drinking water falls at no one’s feet but their own. 

Still, we would embrace an open dialogue with the District about these issues and the simple solution we put forth to address this threat in a comprehensive, districtwide way. In fact, the District’s own testing data shows that replacing every antiquated drinking fountain with a lead-filtering hydration station will likely address the threat at hand.  Every hydration station tested by the District and included in our study met the health-based standards recommended by the public health community and laid out in our report.  Hopefully District officials will stop ignoring, deflecting, and delaying communication with parents, experts and other stakeholders, and instead roll up their sleeves to work collaboratively to address the threat of lead in Philadelphia schools drinking outlets and protect our children’s health.