Until the Flint, Michigan, water crisis was exposed, where cost-cutting measures led to tainted drinking water that contained lead and other toxins, few of us thought about lead in the pipes and plumbing that bring drinking water to our faucets.
It certainly wasn’t on the minds of Nate and Rachel Spruhan until their then 5-year-old daughter came home with a letter from Springdale Elementary, located not far from Haltom City, last August.
The letter read: “In the past year we’ve heard about national events that have brought increased attention to the issue of water quality. This summer the Fort Worth ISD began a proactive and comprehensive water-sampling program of all our schools.”
It went on to reveal that lead had been found in the water over the summer.
Fort Worth and cities and school districts across the country started looking at their aging water supply infrastructures after the lead contamination crisis in Flint made national headlines beginning in 2015.
There’s no federal, state or local mandate requiring public schools to test their drinking water — not annually, not ever. But in June 2016, Fort Worth ISD voluntarily began testing a few schools. After discovering high levels of lead in that sampling, they expanded the effort to cover every drinking fountain and sink in the district, and what they found was concerning — very concerning. Water samples from 60 of 127 schools in Fort Worth ISD contained actionable levels of lead. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledges that there is no safe level but recommends action be taken if levels are 20 parts per billion or higher; Fort Worth ISD used 15 parts per billion, the same threshold the City of Fort Worth uses.
Other districts fell in line. Dallas ISD, which did not test every fountain but instead relied on random testing to give a statistical representation, discovered 113 out of 234 schools with elevated levels of lead. Arlington ISD found 16 schools with levels exceeding 15 parts per billion after taking samples from every fountain and sink. And Plano ISD didn’t find any schools with actionable levels in the random samples they took from older campuses. (To find individual school test results, visit the school district’s homepage and search water quality, or call your child’s school.)
But even with the testing now taking place, it’s impossible to know how long the water’s been contaminated since it has never been tested before. Many of the water fountains containing lead were 30 years old. Who knows how many kids may have been affected in that time.
And while the amount of lead in the water is concerning, the effects of the exposure on kids and the unborn children of pregnant women is the real issue.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pregnant women exposed to lead are at risk for miscarrying; delivering prematurely; damaging the unborn baby’s brain, kidneys and nervous system; and having children with learning or behavior problems later on.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that state and local governments “take steps to ensure that water fountains in schools do not exceed water lead concentrations of 1 part per billion.” This is far below the current actionable level of 15 parts per billion that Fort Worth ISD and other school districts are using as a threshold.
“Young children, especially those 6 years and younger, are at particular risk for lead exposure because they absorb lead more easily than adults,” says Dr. Samuel H. Davis, a pediatrician at Child Plus Pediatrics in Saginaw. “Children’s nervous systems are still developing and are more vulnerable to the effects of toxins like lead. Levels below 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood are associated with inattention and hyperactivity, and decreased cognitive function.”
What does this mean for North Texas kids? Unfortunately, there are plenty of districts in North Texas that haven’t tested at all, and a new report from Environment Texas, a citizen-based, nonprofit environmental advocacy project based in Austin, estimates that the confirmed cases of escalated levels of lead might just be the tip of the iceberg — that 65 percent of Texas schools have lead-contaminated drinking water.
COMING DOWN THE PIPES
Lead was used in water supply pipes up until 1986 because of its durability and malleability. After 1986, pipes were only allowed to contain 8 percent lead because of the danger of contamination. Then in 2014, mandates reduced the allowable amount to less than 0.25 percent.
So how many schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have pipes made of lead? No one knows for sure. There’s not a single state agency that has a comprehensive list of when each of the schools in North Texas was built.
“According to reports by the comptroller’s office, the average age of Texas schools is over 45 years old,” says Rep. Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth), who brought a bill to the Texas House this session that would have addressed water quality testing in Texas public schools. “Our research further found that over 40 percent of public school campuses are in need of physical repair, and lead testing should be an important part of assessing what repairs are necessary.”
TESTING … ONE, TWO, THREE
The current tests sample the water at that site and at that moment, but lead levels can fluctuate with the corrosiveness of the water, the temperature of the water or how long it has been since water ran through the pipe.
“Lead testing is unreliable,” says Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. “The fact is, you need to know if there’s lead used in the school, period. The methods used to test for lead are not reliable and often give false negatives.”
Another problem is that over 90 percent of public schools and child care centers are exempt from on-site testing. The EPA estimates that there are approximately 98,000 public schools and 500,000 child care centers in the United States that are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), established in 1974 and then amended in 1986 and 1996. That’s because the SDWA only monitors public water systems. These schools and child care facilities are not considered public water systems. In contrast, hospitals and prisons are, and therefore receive on-site water testing regularly.
In 1988, the EPA issued a mandate that required schools to test water on-site. The results showed widespread contamination. But the requirement was revoked eight years later when a court decided that the decision to test should be left up to the states, leaving our children vulnerable.
Now Environment Texas estimates that over 24 million children across the country will be affected by levels of lead at 5 parts per billion or less, whether it’s losing IQ points or something more severe such as kidney failure. The estimate is based on findings from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which concluded: “Extensive evidence indicates problems begin at levels [of 5 parts per billion], including lower IQ scores and academic performance, inattention, impulsivity, aggression and hyperactivity.” A June 20, 2016, policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics reiterated that there is no safe level of lead exposure for children, and again called for “stricter regulations, expanded federal resources and joint action by government officials” to identify and eliminate sources of lead exposure.
And there are North Texas schools that tested way, way, way above that 5 parts per billion. Fort Worth ISD found levels of more than 45 parts per billion at one of its testing sites at Atwood McDonald Elementary and 1,340 parts per billion at one of the testing sites at Cater Park Elementary. (Both schools are in low-income neighborhoods.) Both testing sites were subsequently made inoperable, according to updates on the district’s website.
“As a toxicologist that has worked with the EPA on the National Primary Drinking Water standards, I think lead regulation, especially for schools and day cares, should be revised,” says Dr. James Smith, a toxicologist at Collin College in McKinney. “I know that there is constant revision of the regulations, but with the current political climate, I am not sure what they will come to.”
WHEN LEAD RISES TO THE SURFACE
In Flint, lead exposure was first discovered in pediatricians’ offices. Though Davis hasn’t seen any cases in his office that could potentially be attributed to the lead found in local school water, he admits low levels of exposure cannot be identified clinically. “The exposure is not the same for all children since not all kids drink the same amount of water at school,” he explains. “The amount of lead in a water fountain can also decrease as the day goes on since the water in the fountain is being flushed throughout the day as it is used.”
But lead accumulates in the body, meaning it stays and builds up over time, so ongoing exposure, even at extremely low levels, is toxic. Therefore, public health experts and agencies now unanimously agree that there is no safe level of lead for our children.
SO WHAT ARE LAWMAKERS WAITING FOR?
In response to the Flint water crisis, the EPA rolled out new guidelines for water testing in schools in 2015. Its “3 Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water” offers suggestions and technical guidance for schools, including training school officials on the dangers of lead, testing drinking water, taking corrective actions and keeping parents and staff in the loop on findings and action plans. These guidelines, however, aren’t required and leave the implementation (or not) up to each state.
So why hasn’t Texas implemented these guidelines across every district statewide? The cost. Testing comes with a significant price tag — anywhere from $75 to $100 per sample taken from a drinking fountain or sink — that officials estimate would cost each campus in a district $2,500 per year for initial samples plus follow-up testing for any areas with a reading above 15 parts per billion. Multiply that by 8,685 campuses statewide, and the Texas Education Agency says the bill would run about $22 million just to test for lead, not to do anything about getting it out if it’s found.
That number is part of the reason a bill to address the lack of testing in schools failed this session in the Texas Legislature. The bill, HB 2395, authored by Collier, sought to address water safety in schools. It was killed, however, in what press termed the Mother’s Day Massacre, the night House lawmakers watched the unnecessary slaughter of good legislation, all because some legislators couldn’t play nice and took political retribution instead.
“We know based on what testing has already occurred that schools built before 1986 have at least some risk of lead contamination. And there is overwhelming evidence that lead contamination in drinking water causes often severe health problems. I was saddened…to see that our children face potential illness and suffering because of a fear that we will uncover costly issues,” Collier says of the decision.
At the national level, wheels are still in motion, thankfully. Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Josh Gottheimer, both from New Jersey, proposed new legislation in June of this year that would allocate federal funds to reimburse schools for the costs of testing their drinking water for lead. “It’s not a Democratic or Republican issue,” Gottheimer told lawmakers. “It’s an American issue.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW (WHILE WAITING ON LEGISLATION)
If you’re worried about water quality in your area, experts stress controlling what you can first. Send your child to school with water. Have your child take a multivitamin if she isn’t great about eating wellbalanced meals, Davis urges. Why? Lead looks like iron and calcium to the body, and the body will absorb lead into the bones in place of calcium. The body will do the same with iron. “Children will absorb lead at different rates according to [their] nutritional deficiencies,” Davis explains. “Adequate iron and calcium and possibly zinc stores [in their bodies] may decrease lead absorption.”
You can also request a lead test from your pediatrician at the next checkup. It only takes a quick finger prick, and Davis says that insurance would likely cover the test for any suspected lead exposure. “If my child attended a school with high levels of lead, I’d get the test done,” he says.
According to the EPA, you certainly don’t want to cook, make baby formula or brush the kids’ teeth with lead-laced water. But you shouldn’t bathe in it either. So the agency recommends being proactive if your home was built before 1986.
Start by calling your municipal water supplier and asking for a copy of the Consumer Confidence Report, a regular report required by federal law that lists levels of contaminants found during water quality tests. (The report may even be posted online; check epa.gov/ccr.) If you see a red flag (any lead, really), ask for a site test to be done at your home. Some suppliers will do it for free.
At school, ask to see building records that reveal what’s in the supply lines. If records can’t be produced, request that the school get a plumber to come check the supply lines. “If they refuse to do that, you have to go to a school board meeting,” Metzger says. “If they won’t hear you, you’ll have to propose a bond issue to pay for it to get done. Parents really have to shake the tree, and they can’t let up.”
Collier plans to try her bill again. “I intend to refile a lead testing bill at the earliest opportunity during the 86th session,” she says. The session starts in January 2019. What can you do? Contact your representatives to let them know you support annual water quality testing in schools. (See the sidebar for details.)
“[My daughter] was drinking the water all last year,” Spruhan says of his soon-to-be first-grader. “I worry about the damage that’s already been done.”