Women for a Healthy Environment (WHE) and the Green Building Alliance (GBA) announced at a joint press conference Thursday a new initiative, 1,000 Hours a Year, that will provide funding to local schools and early learning centers to test for lead and radon.

The Heinz Endowments provided $400,000 to fund the initiative. School districts, primarily in Allegheny County but in Southwest Pennsylvania as a whole, will be eligible to receive up to $7,500 to test for these invisible environmental hazards. Schools in underserved communities will be prioritized.

“All children should have the opportunity to lead happy, healthy, fulfilling lives,” says Andrew Ellsworth, VP of Health and Learning at GBA. “The two hazards that this campaign is focused on, lead and radon, are preventable. They are solvable. There’s no reason that these two hazards need to continue to be a threat to our children in school environments.”

The name of the program comes from the fact that children spend on average 1,000 hours a year in schools and early learning centers. The funding will allow 100-200 area educational facilities to be tested by the end of 2017.

The 1,000 Hours a Year technical team will also offer training and assistance to ensure proper steps are taken if lead or radon is detected. The long-term goal is to trigger a broader awareness and action on these issues across the region, with the hope that eventually every school and early learning center in the region will be tested, and take the necessary steps to remediate the risk.

Lead is a neurotoxin that causes developmental delays, loss of IQ and other severe medical ailments, whereas radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after cigarette smoking.

Despite the well-known risks, testing and remediation of lead and radon in educational facilities are entirely voluntary.

Responses to a recent WHE survey of Southwestern Pennsylvania school districts indicated that only 20 percent had tested for radon, 11 percent tested for lead, and 35 pecent tested for lead in water. A 2016 investigation by PublicSource also shows that a substantial number of area school districts have never tested for lead or radon.

Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of WHE, cited a 2016 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that states that no level of lead concentration is safe for children, and that the only reliable way to protect children is to prevent any exposure.

Young children are most susceptible to lead poisoning. Despite that well-established fact, the EPA action limit for lead in water in schools, 20 parts per billion (ppb), is higher than the 15 ppb action level for residential homes. Naccarati-Chapkis emphasized that neither number is a health-based standard, and pointed again to the AAP study that recommended “state and local governments should take steps to ensure that water fountains in schools do not exceed water lead concentrations of 1 ppb.”

Naccarati-Chapkis also emphasized that Pennsylvania has one of the most serious radon problems in the country. The current EPA action level for radon is 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) or higher, and the average for Allegheny County is 6.7 pCi/L.

“The research is sound, the research is clear, that both lead and radon can impact a child’s development, growth and learning,” she says.

Kristi Wees, a parent at Wexford Elementary, encouraged parents to reach out to whomever they feel most comfortable with at the school to “start a conversation” about the issue. “We’re talking about children’s health, and nobody should be afraid to have that conversation.”

More information on the initiative can be found at 1000hoursayear.org.

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.