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Indiana lawmakers call for lead testing law after elevated water levels were found in some Marion County schools

Three Indiana legislators are calling for the state to adopt a lead poisoning law that would mandate blood testing for children and require schools to regularly test water sources.

Republican Sen. Rick Niemeyer and Democratic Sen. Jean Breaux and Rep. Carolyn Jackson said they plan to file a bill next year to address lead testing. The lawmakers expressed their commitment at a Thursday forum hosted by the Greater Indianapolis NAACP.

The group is pushing for legislation after hundreds of water sources in Marion County schools were found to have elevated levels of lead, according to a health department report released earlier this year.

There are currently no federal or state laws mandating regular lead testing of school drinking water in Indiana. Some districts do regularly test their water sources even without a mandate, but it’s difficult to tell how many or how frequently because they aren’t required to report the results to the public.

In Marion County, 297 schools voluntarily participated in the onetime county survey over 16 months ending in October 2018, and water sources in 161 schools were found to have high lead levels. The county health department ran the tests in response to a growing national awareness of elevated lead levels in school drinking water.

Schools with elevated levels replaced water fountains, added filters, or disconnected lines. According to the report, when water sources were re-tested, none of them recorded high lead levels.

Fifteen states and Washington, D.C. have passed a state policy on lead testing for school drinking water. Nine, including Illinois and Tennessee, mandate testing for schools.

“We’re trying to address a problem that has already done a great deal of damage [to children],” said Carlton Waterhouse, a Howard University law professor, during the forum.

For young children, lead exposure can damage their developing brains, causing cognitive problems, behavioral disorders, and developmental delays. Lead paint is another common cause of lead exposure.

Most of Indiana’s children are not tested for lead levels in their blood. Last year more than 70,000 children under 7 years old were tested and 1.4% had elevated levels, according to an Indiana Health Department report.

In the Marion County report, about 10% of children ages 0-5 in the area were screened for blood lead levels in 2017. Of the children tested, 2.8% had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Breaux, from Indianapolis, filed an unsuccessful bill last session aimed to increase blood testing. On Thursday she said she’s particularly interested in testing low-income children. Federal law requires testing for children who are on Medicaid, but last year less than a quarter of low-income children were tested, the health department reported.

“It will take legislation because obviously [physicians] aren’t going to do it, can’t do it on their own,” Breaux said.

The proposed law might look similar to the one recently passed in New Jersey, which was discussed during the forum. In 2016, nearly half of Newark schools were found to have elevated levels of lead in the water, leading the state to increase requirements for testing water in schools and reporting results.

New Jersey’s law is still new, so it’s yet to be seen what cost, or other challenges, schools will face as a result.

For now, parents of kindergarteners and first-graders in two of Indianapolis’ largest school districts — Indianapolis Public Schools and Pike Township Schools — and mayor-authorized charter schools can opt to have their child receive a free lead screening.

The Greater Indianapolis NAACP started the free testing program in September, after visiting a school in the area and seeing a young girl chewing on paint she had picked off the wall.