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The Montana Department Health and Human Services has opened its comment period on a proposal that would force every single school in the state to test annually for lead in the water from every drinking fountain and faucet in schools. Fixtures that produced water samples over a certain limit would have to be replaced immediately, and those with samples close to the limit would have to be replaced within six months.

So, we'll take the state agency up on its invitation to comment.

In short, we believe the proposal is an unfunded mandate on local school districts large and small.

Make no mistake, we're not denying the science behind the dangers of lead and its affect on children. The eradication of lead-based paint is a testament to the health risks posed by the substance, its widespread understanding of the problem and an adoption of a solution.

Twenty-four states have laws or programs that require testing of tap water in schools for lead, according to a report from Harvard University and the University of California released earlier this year. However, according to Governing magazine, the states vary significantly on whether the testing is mandatory or voluntary, whether schools or another agency does the testing and who pays for the testing and any remediation. No amount of lead is considered safe for humans to consume, and growing children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning. Yet federal agencies have set various limits on this contaminant.

While scientists work to determine more precise safety standards and researchers look at how various state approaches are working, Montana must act to protect our school children, too. But our state should not overburden schools will rules that don't clearly benefit students. The present rules proposed by DPHHS would require schools to do extensive testing, but provide no resources for those requirements.

It should also tell you something when Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and teachers union president Eric Feaver both sign a letter objecting to it. Those are two people who are almost inevitably on different sides of any debate. If they both agree the proposed policies are troubling, then it's time to re-examine it.

The problem is that individual school districts are ill equipped to set up their own testing and monitoring. 

As reported in The Gazette by Matt Hoffman, this proposed DPHHS rule includes many other items: There are new indoor and outdoor air quality requirements, rules about chemical storage and lab safety, requirements about building inspections, playground inspections, breast feeding facilities, and pest control plans. The Office of Public Instruction didn't even see the specific proposals until late June, according to Arntzen.

We understand the department of health's mission and purpose is to safeguard and advocate for the citizens, especially vulnerable ones like children and youth. But DPHHS hasn't provided sufficient time and opportunity for schools or the public to have input on these proposed rules. The comment period ended July 19; it should be extended with the understanding that voluntary standards, identifying a funding source and more public information would be the best first steps.

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