Council passes bill on water fountains

Duckrey School is North Philadelphia had some of the highest lead concentrations in its water fountains.

City Council’s unanimous vote this past week to require the School District of Philadelphia to replace all of its water fountains with lead-filtering hydration stations by 2025 is a good first step, but it’s a temporary fix, said 4th District Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr.

“Some of these school buildings are just too old. At the end of the day, we need to take a look and evaluate all of our facilities,” Jones said. “If you look at the state of physical plants in our schools, we are looking at a $5 billion problem. We have to address all of that.”

Lead contamination in drinking water is a problem across the School District of Philadelphia, according to a February 2022 report by public interest research group PennPIRG. The group reviewed testing information available on about 2,000 fountains and found that 98% of schools tested had at least one tap where lead was detected in the water and over 60% of all tested outlets had lead contamination.

Some schools’ fountains showed extremely high levels of lead contamination, such as one at the Duckrey School in North Philadelphia.

“It’s not too much to ask that schoolchildren have drinking water that is entirely lead free — in fact, it should be essential,” said At-Large Councilmember Helen Gym. “I am honored to have worked alongside PennPIRG and PennEnvironment on this legislation and campaign since 2016. The campaign for clean, safe, and lead free water has not only resulted in a swift victory, but also kick-started a billion dollar school modernization efforts for the first time in decades. We will continue to organize with school communities across this city, fighting for healthy learning environments for every student.”

In June 2021, PennEnvironment, PennPIRG, the Black Church Center for Justice and Equity and the American Heart Association called on the Philadelphia School District to address the issue of lead contamination. The groups urged the district to use a percentage of the $1.1 billion in federal pandemic stimulus funds to replace the old water fountains with new lead-filtering systems.

In the school district’s 2022-23 budget, $6.2 million has been allocated to finish installing new water fountains by 2025.

“We are not sure about the short term effects of toxic water, but we have done studies on the long term effects and ironically, it affects a child’s IQ,” said Jones, who represents West Philadelphia, East Falls, Manayunk and Roxborough. “When a child is dropped off at school, the assumption to a parent is that they are safe physically, safe emotionally, safe from gun violence and safe from toxic water.”

Only three other cities have passed similar laws.

Emma Horst-Martz, a PennPIRG advocate, said Philadelphia has become a leader in the nation, with the passage of this law by city council.

“This win, in this new law, is going to make huge strides towards protecting the children in their schools all across Philadelphia and will guarantee that schools remain the safe spaces—sanctuaries—that they deserve and we have a moral duty to provide,” said Pastor Willie Francois, President of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.

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