Reps. Bustos, Rush: A fight for safe drinking water in schools

By Representatives Cheri Bustos (IL-17) and Bobby L. Rush (IL-01). Originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Whether you live on the South Side of Chicago or in rural Illinois, we all want the very best for our communities. As Illinoisans, we know the success of our state depends on the success of our families and neighbors. And as parents and grandparents, we want our children and our grandchildren to have the best chance possible to live better lives than we have.

As two members of Congress who respectively serve on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee, we’re working together to address a serious problem that affects too many of our homes, schools and cities — lead-contaminated water.

The facts on this issue are clear:

  • Lead exposure is proven to hinder kids’ ability to learn, grow and succeed.
  • It can lead to behavioral problems, shorter attention spans, reduced IQ and impaired learning.
  • At extremely high levels, it can attack the brain and central nervous system to cause coma, convulsions and even death.
  • And the health effects of lead exposure on pregnant women can be especially devastating in the development of a child.

These are problems in communities both large and small, affluent and poor. Lead-tainted water does not discriminate.

As a Congresswoman representing central, western and northwestern Illinois, I first took action on this issue after 14 percent of children tested in Knox County had levels of lead in their blood above the point where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends intervention. Meanwhile, the city of Galesburg — which makes up the majority of Knox County’s population — had been struggling with high levels of lead in some residents’ drinking water. The problem has been occurring off and on for decades, in no small part due to privately owned water pipes that are solid lead. After playing a watchdog role to get federal, state and local officials focused on solving this problem, I helped secure $4 million from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to replace half of the 4,000 lead water lines in this community.

But this issue is much bigger than any one town.

In Chicago, as one of its Congressmen, I worked to deal with the fact that there are more lead water pipes here than in any other city across the nation. Right now, the city estimates that nearly 80 percent of homes or small apartment buildings are connected to the water supply by lead pipes.

Locally, more than 100 schools in the city have tested with high levels of lead in at least one sink or water fountain. Because it was legal to use lead solder on pipes before 1986, many water fixtures built prior to that year may contain lead. That’s why I also introduced legislation that would create a grant program for schools to replace old and outdated drinking fountains that may poison our kids.

Recently, during a joint discussion in Chicago, we, as members of Congress, brought together leaders from Chicago Public Schools and the public health department about the work they’re doing to prevent lead exposure, including testing and identifying pipes and fixtures that need replacing to protect our kids. We should empower our school districts in Illinois and across the nation to tackle these problems head on.

That’s why we introduced a bill that would establish a $50 million grant program at the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency to give schools and school districts the resources they need to replace lead pipes and lead solder used in school plumbing.

Parents should have peace of mind that a drinking fountain at school isn’t poisoning their children — and schools should have the resources to make repairs without taking away from kids’ education.

There is no safe level of lead exposure for our kids, and this should not be a political or partisan issue. In the coming year, we urge all Illinoisans to join the effort to get lead out of our drinking water supply.

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos serves the 17th Congressional District and U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush the 1st Congressional District of Illinois.