An Austin-based environmental group is concerned about unsafe lead levels in water at public schools in Texas. Ted S. Warren AP archives
An Austin-based environmental group is concerned about unsafe lead levels in water at public schools in Texas. Ted S. Warren AP archives

Fort Worth

How safe is the water your kids drink at school?

By Diane Smith And and Sandra Engelland

dianesmith@star-telegram.com

sengelland@star-telegram.com

September 21, 2017 09:27 AM

FORT WORTH

School districts across North Texas have taken steps to ensure that lead levels are safe in their schools, but an environmental group says it’s not enough.

Environmental Texas, an Austin-based advocacy group, analyzed the results of hundreds of water tests performed by cities and school districts across the state, including in Fort Worth, Arlington, Keller and Northwest.

The testing by local school districts came in 2016 as the water crisis in Flint, Mich., continued to unfold.

The Fort Worth school district was among the first in North Texas to make changes and in August 2016 replaced school water fountains after lead was found in water sources.

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“I commend FWISD for voluntarily beginning testing and being proactive,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. “The job isn’t done yet.”

Fort Worth and other area school districts use a standard of 15 parts per billion of lead in water samples as a safety standard, but Environmental Texas said those lead levels are way too high. Environment Texas wants schools to used a stricter guideline of 1 part per billion.

At the time that the Fort Worth schools were tested, 97 percent of the campuses had results above 1 part per billion and 47 percent had results above 15 parts per billion.

At Arlington schools, 99 percent of campuses tested had lead levels above 1 part per billion while 24 percent had levels above 15 parts per billion. At Keller schools, 13 campuses were above 2 parts per billion while none were above 15 parts per billion.

“It is not a health-based standard,” Metzger of the 15 parts-per-billion standard.

Metzger’s organization stated that only about 1,088 school out of more than 8,000 Texas schools have tested for lead. No public data is available for private schools.

Clint Bond, spokesman for Fort Worth schools, said the district’s standard is stricter than 20 parts per billion that is the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for lead in drinking water at schools.

Metzger said the dangers of lead exposure are simply too great for communities not to demand more action. He pointed to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ position that no amount of lead exposure is safe. The association stated that schools should not exceed lead concentration of more than 1 part per billion. Metzger’s group is working to inform parents so they can in turn urge schools and lawmakers to get tougher on lead.

Earlier this year, Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, authored House Bill 2395 that would have required school districts and charter schools to pay for annual water supply testing. Her bill didn’t become a law.

Fort Worth is still testing

The Fort Worth school district has not stopped addressing the lead issue.

Beginning next summer, the district will start a program that collects representative samples from across the district. They expect to collect about 250 samples each summer, Bond said. Additionally, any water source that exceeded 10 parts per billion in the previous year will be retested, he said.

“The Fort Worth ISD is very concerned about the safety of our children, employees and visitors who visit our campuses and facilities every day,” Bond said in a statement. “We embarked on a long-term effort to reduce exposure beyond the recommended guidelines.

“We will continue that effort going forward. Please remember, as part of our initial educational campaign it was stated that often children and adults alike can be at risk of higher exposure away from schools. We encourage families to contact the City of Fort Water Department to learn more.”\

A trailer is loaded with water fountains that were removed from several Fort Worth schools because the design of the fountains allowed water to sit in a tank and collect metals, including lead, at higher-than-llowable levels.
Rodger Mallison Star-Telegram archives

Last year, the Fort Worth school district replaced hundreds of drinking fountains after testing revealed unsafe levels of lead in water. The lead was found in a certain style of fountain that allows water to sit as it is chilled, which allows lead to leach into the water and contaminate it.

District officials said they don’t believe any children were in any danger during the school year and feel confident the lead issue arose this summer after water was allowed to sit and chill in the fountains.

The Fort Worth school district continue to receive reports on samples submitted last year for testing. The latest report was posted on the Fort Worth school website on Sept. 5.

In line with EPA standards

Officials with the Northwest school district said they have taken the steps to comply with EPA standards.

“Last year, Northwest ISD tested its water outlets at schools for lead as a precaution following the Flint, Michigan, water contamination incident,” Northwest district spokesman Anthony Tosie said via email. “Following these tests, three total outlets at two different schools had abnormal levels of lead.

“After retesting, the water outlets were all below the threshold of 15 parts per billion for minimal lead amounts in accordance with EPA recommendations,” he said.

Tosie said since there is no state or federal requirement to test schools’ water for lead, officials conducted the tests as a precaution. He said maintenance workers replace drinking water-related equipment on an as-needed basis.

Hudson Huff, executive director of facilities services for the Keller school district, said that testing drinking water is part of an annual routine for maintenance workers. Each spring, they test fountains and faucets at every campus to check for lead and other contaminants.

Last year, they also checked all fountains to verify that none of them were models that were prone to lead build up, he said.

Keller district officials have no plans to adhere to a stricter guideline than 15 parts per billion. Huff said they follow the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality guidelines, which use EPA standards.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

Sandra J. Engelland: 817-390-7323, @SandraEngelland