A Montgomery County Council member is taking aim at lead levels in school bubblers and water faucets, advancing legislation this week to reduce the permissible level of the harmful metal that children can be exposed to in drinking water at schools.
Council member Tom Hucker’s bill, introduced Tuesday, would lower the acceptable amount of lead to no more than 5 parts per billion (ppb). Water fixtures texting higher than that would have to be fixed or replaced.
While the county currently follows the state standard of 20 ppb, many experts say that level is too lax. The Food and Drug Administration limit for lead in bottled water, for example, is 5 ppb.
On Monday, state Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City) introduced a bill in the General Assembly that would impose the 5 ppb standard in occupied buildings in local school districts statewide. Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) said he planned to introduce companion legislation in the House of Delegates on Thursday.
“I hope the state passes a new standard, but in the meantime we shouldn’t wait for the state,” Hucker (D-District 5) said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found there is no safe level of lead in blood for children. The metal can cause problems with brain and nervous system development, as well as learning disabilities and seizures, said Travis Gayles, a pediatrician who is Montgomery County’s chief of public health services.
Some surrounding jurisdictions have lower thresholds than what Maryland requires. The District, for example, uses 5 ppb, while Prince George’s County has a standard of 10 ppb.
A 2017 Maryland state law requires public and private schools to test for the presence of lead in drinking water outlets, and take action if levels exceed the state standard. In Montgomery schools, 238 of the 13,248 fixtures tested had lead levels above 20 ppb.
Hucker said about 1,200 more school fixtures would fail the stricter standard in his proposed bill, which was co-sponsored by the rest of the all-Democratic council. Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Derek Turner said it would cost an estimated $2 million to $3 million to address those fixtures, and that the district probably would need additional funds from the county to do the work.
“I don’t think we can manage it inside our current budget,” he said.
A spokesman for County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said he supported Hucker’s initiative, and “would be inclined, working with the council, to give fiscal support to this initiative if the funds can be identified.”
Elrich, a former county council member, said in August he was drafting legislation to reduce the standard. But he did not introduce a bill before he left his council seat last year.
Montgomery’s school system had been studying whether to adhere to a lower lead standard, convening a working group after the testing results came out to examine the question, Turner said.
Laura Stewart, the vice president of advocacy for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs and a member of the working group, said she was glad to see Hucker’s bill. She added that a lower statewide standard would have traction among parents.
“I haven’t heard one parent say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s okay — 20 ppb is okay,’” she said. “When you bring it up to parents, they want to see as little lead as possible that’s being provided to children.”