Is Texas doing enough to get the lead out of drinking water in public schools?
A report released in February by the Environment America Research & Policy Center covered policies in 15 states and graded them on how well they protect children from lead contamination of drinking water at schools. Texas, along with 11 other states, received an “F.” But, the passing of one or more bills during the 85th Legislative Session that requires testing for lead in water at schools could give Texas a passing grade.
Four bills – HB3695, HB2395, SB1587 and SB1580 – were introduced during the Legislative Session that address lead testing in drinking water at public schools. Testimony was heard on committee substitute House Bill 2395 on April 4 by the House Public Education Committee and is currently pending. The bill, authored by Rep. Nicole Collier, relates to testing for lead contamination in public school drinking water.
“I can remember as a child that we were not allowed to go back to school one time,” said Collier who attended school in Virginia. “I asked my parents why we were out of school and they told me it was because they had to get rid of the lead paint on the walls.” Collier recalls being out of school for a few days because of this public health issue. “They didn’t even wait for the summer and did it during the school year when they found it was a harmful product for us. Students (in Texas) typically spend 180 days a year in school buildings and we should at least be able to ensure that the water they drink is not hindering their ability to learn.”
According to Collier, the current state statute fails to address the necessity for annual testing and reporting of lead in water. She said that Fort Worth Independent School District voluntarily had their water tested but had no guidance on how to proceed. The district tested 127 schools and found that nearly 500 drinking fountains contained high levels of lead in the water. The cost for testing was $2,000 per building.
“Some school districts say that they don’t need to (test water in their building for lead) because they test their water system,” Collier said. “Water towers deliver the water to the school’s building (and into their pipes). “We need to look at the water outlets in the school because the average age of a school in Texas is 34.5 years old.” According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder. Lead can enter drinking water when service pipes that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures. The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures with lead solder, from which significant amounts of lead can enter into the water, especially hot water.
The bill would require that annual first-draw tap water testing in public schools and open enrollment charter schools be reported to the Health and Human Services (HHS), the Legislature and posted on the school district’s website. If levels come back that HHS finds to be actionable, regular testing will be held for three weeks and the school will provide adequate, clean drinking water until the issue is resolved. The bill specifies that testing could be done in-house or by a third party.
Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, testified against the bill saying that it did not address the problem which is to remove fixtures containing lead from the schools. Metzger also wanted to make sure that the schools would test properly for lead and gave an example of campuses that tested in New York. “The New York schools would flush the pipes for two hours and they didn’t find very much lead. When they went back and did it properly, they found nine times as many water fountains and pipes that had high levels of lead. Unfortunately, the bill does not set out a protocol to make sure (Texas) schools are properly testing for lead.” He said that 65 percent of schools that have performed testing have found lead levels above what pediatricians recommend.
Dr. Ryan Van Ramshorst, a general practicing pediatrician, testified for the bill on behalf of the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Pediatric Society. “Lead poisoning is still something I see in my practice. It is estimated that 2.6 percent of preschoolers in the United States have a lead concentration that is not safe. This amounts to over 500,000 children and the burden of lead poisoning on this society amounts to $50 billion.”
In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. The law requires the EPA to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no adverse health effects are likely to occur. The treatment technique for lead is based on a regulation published by the EPA in 1991, referred to as the Lead and Copper Rule. If lead concentrations exceed 15 ppb (particles per billion) or copper concentrations exceed 1.3 ppm (particles per million) in more than 10 percent of customer taps sampled, actions must be taken to control the corrosion.
Young children, infants and the fetuses of pregnant women with low or high levels of lead in the blood can result in health issues such as behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, premature birth, hearing problems and anemia.
Following the lead incidents in Flint, Mich. and Sebring, Ohio, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) decided to have their water tested. HISD sampled water at drinking fountains and kitchen sinks and found that water at 15 elementary schools had levels of lead above federal standards set by the EPA. HISD is in the process of testing water at all schools and they’ve repaired most of the problem pipes as they follow federal guidelines.
In 2014, the city of Flint, Mich. changed the source of its water from the city of Detroit to the Flint River. But in the transition to river water, officials didn’t implement proper anti-corrosion measures. Lead from old pipes ended up in the water supply, and in some homes, lead levels measured 10 times higher than the limit set by the EPA. Michigan has spent nearly $250 million in state funding on infrastructure upgrades and pipe replacements. The EPA awarded the city of Flint $100 million in March to help them reach their goal of replacing 6,000 pipes in 2017.
In 2015, seven of 20 homes in Ohio where the water is routinely tested showed excessive levels of lead. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said the manager of the small water system that supplies Sebring and two other villages failed to notify the public within the required 60 days and was under investigation. The Ohio EPA fired two employees and disciplined a third over the incident.