40 years after the Love Canal crisis I still feel unsafe

40 years after the Love Canal crisis I still feel unsafe
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The other day I asked my daughter if her kids’ school tested their drinking water for lead.  She said, “I don’t know, Mom.” How many parents do know? Most parents just trust that when we send our kids to school, they will be safe. I used to, but I learned the hard way.

Forty years after my children and I moved away from one of the most notorious toxic waste sites in the country, Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., I know my family is still at risk from unintended exposure to toxic chemicals.

My three grandchildren live in Texas. Last year a state bill was introduced to mandate testing of lead in drinking water at all schools in the state. The bill never passed. Why, I’m not sure. But I did find a 2017 study conducted by Environment Texas that showed  65 percent of schools in Texas that tested their water for lead found levels greater than the standard recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Texas isn’t alone. More than half the states in the nation don’t require schools to test for lead in their drinking water.

Today there is a bill Get the Lead Out of Schools Act, (S. 1401) that would assure that every school nationwide tests their drinking water for lead. If passed, the law would protect America’s school children from lead poisoning by requiring the public water system to test all water flowing into schools.

The bill requires all results of the water testing to be shared with the school community, because everyone has the right to know what they are drinking. If a level of lead is found that is higher than the EPA’s action level for lead of 15 parts per billion, then the act also provides grants to help schools address their water contamination issue and protect the health of their students.

There is no safe level of exposure to lead. Even tiny amounts of lead can cause neurological damage like speech delays, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, seizures and even death.

The Get the Lead Out of Schools Act is a common sense fix to protect our kids. Too many schools have toxic drinking water and may not even know it. I’m baffled by the lack of concern after Flint, Mich. where the whole town was endangered by elevated lead in their drinking water.

There are so many other toxic water incidences, poisoning innocent children, because the authorities charged with keeping our kids safe have failed to act.

There are laws that force parents to send their children to school. If they don’t, their children can be taken away from them or the parents could spend time in jail.

And then there is the case of Fayetteville, W.Va. where the local school’s  principal purchased sanitary wipes for the school bathrooms so students wouldn’t wash with the water — for fear of serious chemical exposure.

The EPA estimates that about 90,000 public schools and half a million child-care facilities are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act because they depend on water sources such as municipal utilities that are expected to test their own water. That means parents have no assurance at all that lead isn't seeping into children's water from a school building’s pipes, solder or fixtures.

In 1996 our country banned lead in gasoline to protect public health. Yet in the 22 years since we acknowledged the public health threats from lead exposures and took action with vehicles, our government has failed to take the next logical step to protect our children from widespread lead poisoning from drinking water in public schools.

Public schools are controlled by government. Federal, state and local funds support the schools; so it should be an easier task to get lead out of schools than convincing the gas and oil industry to get lead out of gasoline. Yet the bill that would do exactly that just sits in the senate with little attention and few champions.

Parents and teachers need to step up and demand testing and then, where necessary, demand the immediate cleanup of lead-related water problems. Our children — and grandchildren — deserve better than being forced to attend a school that may be killing them ever so slowly.

Lois Gibbs is the founder of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, a project of People’s Action Institute. In 1978 she blew the whistle on Love Canal after learning her kindergartener’s school was built on a toxic dump. Her work led to the creation of Superfund.