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Is your school safe? A new report has shocking findings

Kristine Sorensen
January23/ 2019

Do you know if there’s lead in the water at your child’s school? A new report found many school districts in our region don’t know. A study of 129 districts across Western Pennsylvania by Women for a Healthy Environment found some surprising findings about what schools do and don’t know about the health and safety of their own facilities.

As soon as the Woodland Hills School District found high levels of lead in the water in some water fountains and the cafeteria kitchen faucets, they immediately took action. Robert Finney, director of facilities, didn’t wait for ordering supplies. “We took the initiative to go out to Home Depot and purchase some water faucets, filters, new water lines so our kitchen wouldn’t have to be shut down,” Finney said.

Water fountains were shut down and are being replaced as new ones come in. Woodland Hills was helped by a $35,000 grant from the 1,000 Hours project, funded by the Heinz Foundation and guidance from Women for a Healthy Environment. Michelle Nacarti-Chapkis, executive director of WHE, says, “Any amount of lead is considered harmful, and we know it can impact developing brains and certainly children who are growing and thriving in a school building.”

The report found that 44% of schools did not answer whether they tested the school’s water supply for lead or other contaminants. Just about half, test the water supply, and one quarter tested for lead in the water.  Less than a quarter tested for lead paint.

More than half of the districts reported they do not have anti-idling signage, which is required by state law.

The report also found only 31% of school districts test for radon, even though this area of the country has a high occurrence of radon. “It’s a concern because it’s a naturally occurring gas, but you can’t see it. You can’t smell it, and you only know it’s present if you test for it.  But we also know that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.”

Women for a Healthy Environment want all school districts to start testing for environmental hazards. “For me it’s not about the cost,” says Finney.  “Again, it’s about making sure our students are safe, they’re healthy and not just our students, our employees that work here on a regular basis as well.  That is supposed to be a priority.”

Of course, cost does have to factor in, and Women for a Healthy Environment can help districts find grant money to offset the costs. They also recommend school districts start by forming a wellness committee, and that can be a great thing for parents to initiate.  It can be comprised of parents, administrators, teachers, school nurses and even students. That group then can mobilize to help the district take action. Women for a Healthy Environment is a resource for that as well.

Learn more about the report in this Kidsburgh story.

Kristine Sorensen

I am proud to work at KDKA-TV -- anchoring the news, hosting Pittsburgh Today Live and doing special reports. I am married to KDKA reporter Marty Griffin and we have 3 children. I first moved to Pittsburgh in 1999 but I’ve lived in Dallas, Johnson City, Tenn., Chicago, Williamsburg, Va., Milwaukee and Winter Park, Fla. Pittsburgh is now the place I call home.

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