Gerrymandering plus unfair legislative rules yield an unresponsive legislature where good solutions to important issues rarely get a vote.
Our children’s safety should be a non-partisan issue, and the PA constitution promises the right to clean air and water. Yet in 2016, while Flint, Michigan gained national headlines for dangerous levels of lead in public drinking water, FOX News called attention to 18 cities in PA with worse lead levels, many far worse. That lead is in both water and air, in old lead pipes and airborne dust in aging homes, child-care centers and schools.
No level of lead is safe. Elevated lead can cause behavior and learning difficulties, brain and other organ damage, and ultimately death. But testing in PA is not mandated, even in areas with known risk from lead. Data collection is voluntary. And remediation is left to property owners aware of the problem and able to pay the cost.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health Lead Surveillance Program shows that there is no region in the state with comprehensive testing and no region where elevated lead is not a concern. DOH data across the past few years suggests as 1 in every 25 PA children may be impacted.
The Value of Lead Prevention website created by the Johnson Foundation predicts an even higher number. GIven data about housing age, testing rates and known elevated lead levels, that site predicts 11% of PA children born in 2019 will experience elevated blood levels. The predicted cost of care for those children: $3.1 billion, with families and their health care providers carrying more than half that cost. The rest is divided among federal, state and local entities.
Multiply that $3.1 billion by years of inaction for a staggering human and economic cost.
In every recent legislative session, legislators have introduced bills to require testing and remediation. Over the years dozens of bills have been referred to various committees in both chambers: education, housing, youth and children, health. Very few have received a committee vote.
Occasional resolutions creating Lead Awareness Days see final passage. In 2019, House Resolution 581, designating Oct 20-26, 2019 as National Lead Prevention Week, passed in the House on November 19, a month after that week had ended. In 2017, the senate passed Senate Resolution 33, establishing a task force on lead exposure and the hazards of lead poisoning. The report required by that resolution was released in April, 2019.
That report made clear the inadequacy of testing and the danger to children in every part of the state. It also provided very specific legislative recommendations, including blood screenings for children, mandatory testing of child-care facilities and schools, testing of rental properties, a lead abatement grant program.
In early 2019, members of that senate task force introduced bills to implement report recommendations. In total, six senate bills to address lead were sent to committee and never given a vote.
In the house, another nine bills were introduced addressing the same issues. Just one, to require testing of young children, was voted out of committee, but never given a vote on the house floor. The others never received a vote in committee.
Cosponsorship in both houses suggests strong bipartisan support for this issue. Yet a handful of legislators concerned about government overreach have so far been able to block any action.
In reality, what happens to Pennsylvania’s children impacts all of us. Together we carry the staggering cost of children unable to learn and a lifetime of medical costs for every impacted child. If given a vote, these bills would pass with bipartisan support. Every year of legislative delay will yield thousands more damaged lives and billions more in shared economic burden.