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A new Illinois law requires schools serving children up to grade 5 that were built before 2001 to test for lead in water supplies used for drinking and cooking, and any sinks in classrooms serving grade 1 or below.

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GOREVILLE — Across Southern Illinois, where there are many aging school buildings, superintendents are gearing up to test their drinking water supplies for lead as mandated by a new state law.

But they have questions.

Chief among them, what will cash-strapped school districts do if the tests reveal a need for costly repairs? Where will the money come from for new construction or extensive renovations?

Steve Webb, the superintendent of Goreville Community Unit District 1, said the bill Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law this past week is important, and that lead testing is the right thing to do, no matter the consequences.

But what’s unknown at this point, he said, is what remedies will be adequate if the tests reveal a problem that can’t be easily rectified, such as by replacing a water fountain. If the problem is traced to lead pipes in the walls, the costs could quickly escalate.

“They’re going to have to go to an emergency situation,” said Webb, who also sits on the board of the Illinois Association of Rural and Small Schools and is a past president of the organization.

From there, Webb said that if the problem is so extensive that a school ends up condemned, the district and community would have to decide, if they do not have access to construction funds, whether they are willing and able to raise the funds through a property tax referendum. If not, the only option may be to dissolve the district into another nearby school system, he said. 

Webb cautioned that this is a worst-case scenario — not a forgone conclusion for Goreville or any other Southern Illinois district — but he said there are many unknowns at this stage about how the new law will play out as the results roll in. 

The law that Rauner signed Jan. 16 comes after the Flint, Michigan, water crisis thrust into the forefront the dangers of lead in the drinking water supply and the disproportionate risks for lead poisoning of children in low-income and minority communities.

The law requires all schools serving children up to grade 5 that were built before 2001 to test for lead in water supplies used for drinking and cooking and any sinks in classrooms serving grade 1 or below. The mandate applies to public and private schools. As well, all day care centers built prior to 2001 serving children age 6 and younger must be tested.

Buildings constructed prior to 1987 have to be tested by the end of the 2017 calendar year. Facilities built between Jan. 1, 1987, and Dec. 31, 2000, must be tested by the end of 2018.

Schools built in 2001 and thereafter do not have to be tested at this time. Though, the law allows the Illinois Department of Public Health to write rules for further testing of newer schools, if warranted, based on the test results of the older facilities, said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. 

“In Chicago, they’ve found facilities built after 2000 with problems,” said Walling, whose organization represents a consortium of more than 80 environmental organizations in the state, and was one of the major proponents of the new law.

There is no amount of lead consumption that is considered safe, for children or adults. Even trace amounts can cause problems, particularly in the small bodies of children. Though rare, large amounts can be fatal. Lead poisoning can lead to long-term physical and mental delays. Since 1986, lead pipes have been banned in the U.S., but many schools in the region were built long before that date.

For example, Goreville’s school that houses pre-kindergarten through high school seniors was constructed in the early 1950s, Webb said. While many Southern Illinois counties have implemented a one-cent sales tax to fund school construction and renovation projects, and some districts have recently built new schools, there still are many others that are as old or older than Goreville's. 

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) publishes annually a listing of high-risk zip codes in Illinois, which considers U.S. Census housing stock data and family economic status. Zip codes in the Southern Illinois counties of Franklin, Williamson, Jackson, Saline, Alexander, Pulaski, Union, Johnson and Massac are classified as high-risk for lead exposure. 

High-risk zip codes

Alexander County was included in a ranking of the top 25 Illinois counties with the highest risk for lead exposure in a 2015 IDPH report.

Because of the serious damages lead can cause a young person, Walling said those who pushed for the law decided to focus their efforts on the facilities where younger children spend a large part of their day. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan was also an outspoken proponent of the law, and her office helped negotiate the final product with the governor’s office, lawmakers and others.

There are 373 public elementary school districts in Illinois, 388 public districts that comprise elementary and high schools, and about 1,260 private schools that could potentially be affected, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Those numbers do not account for districts with schools built after 2000 that are exempt, or those districts that tested for lead in 2013 or thereafter voluntarily, prior to the mandate.

Buildings that do not have students grade 5 and younger are not required to test, but Walling said it is suggested that they do, particularly for unit districts. After the testing results are returned, parents must be notified. If a unit district tests only its elementary school and lead is found in the drinking water, parents are likely to also want to know the status of the high school drinking water, she said.

Other than notifying IDPH and parents, the law does not dictate how schools must respond to problematic results. Though, superintendents say that knowing and doing nothing would not be an option.

Walling said there are corrective actions that can be taken that are far less dramatic than condemnation and less expensive than having to build a new school. For instance, she said schools can turn off and replace any water fountains that are problematic, as some older models contain lead in the lining.

If the problem is the plumping, the instillation of filters and regular morning flushing procedures can improve the problem in the short term, but districts would likely have to take more extensive action into the future, she said. 

Frankfort Community Unit District 168 Superintendent Greg Goins said it’s frustrating that a funding source from the state did not accompany the new mandate. There's also not likely to be any funds to help struggling school districts that must take corrective action, he said.

Goins said he recently received a quote from the district’s environmental consultant that he sought in relation to the testing requirement. For the district’s elementary, junior high and high schools, it is going to cost the district about $10,000, Goins said.

Of those, the law would only mandate testing of the elementary school, but with the law so new, the district is still studying how it plans to proceed, he said. Frankfort Intermediate School serves young children through grade 6, but would likely be exempt because it is a newer building, Goins said.

“I’m not saying we don’t need to test for lead, but they dropped this on us in the middle of the school year and budgets are tight,” he said. “We’re hoping for the best. Obviously, we want safe water available in our school, but our high school is a 100-year-old building. This is another ball in the air we’ll have to juggle.”

Karen Samuel, the director of Rainbow’s End Child Development Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which currently serves about 88 children between the ages of 6 weeks and 8, said that despite the budget dilemma it causes, she thinks it is a "good idea because of the risks that lead can cause with young children." 

"Of course budgets are tight everywhere," she said, "but we’ll have to figure out a way to work it into our budget if it’s a requirement. I think it will be reassuring to parents to know their center is good in that area."

molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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