When you are a busy mom of four, unexpected things happen.
But Daisy Brittain would never have thought what she recently learned about the water where two of her sons go to school.
“As a child, I didn’t have to worry about lead poisoning. Do I have to look after my children now? It just doesn’t seem right, ”she recently told us from her home in Tampa.
Lead-contaminated drinking water has put schools in the spotlight and scrutiny across the country and state.
In Hillsborough County, 54 schools have tested more than 15 parts per billion, the federal standard of action, since the district began lead testing last year. Including the elementary school that Daisy’s children go to. Two water fountains at the school recently tested 50.5 parts per billion (ppb) and 73.7 (ppb), nearly four and five times above that federal standard. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that lead levels should not exceed 1 (ppb).
“I was amazed at how high they were, it was really shocking,” said Brittain in response to the results that Hillsborough County is now making public online.
While the school is replacing these wells, we have found that the majority of Florida school districts are not testing for the metal toxin on campus.
Here are some of the highlights:
- (19) School districts have water tested for lead on campus every 1-3 years.
- (39) School districts don’t test. Most, if not all of these counties get their water from the city or county and rely on the public utility system to test the water for safety. However, public utility systems conduct tests in their facilities and typically do not test sources on a school campus.
- (6) School districts told us that they only test in schools that have wells or that get their water from the district’s own waterworks.
- (2) plan to begin district-wide lead testing this year.
While Florida law requires school officials to protect the health and safety of children, the law does not require schools to test for lead on campus. Only six states require school systems to test for lead in water: California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Department of Health require public water systems to perform routine water quality tests, but that includes public utilities, not school systems.
Sarasota County is one of three school districts in the state that have just started testing school water. District leaders invited us when they started sampling water about a month ago.
“Why did it take so long,” asked investigative reporter Katie LaGrone.
“That’s a good question,” said Jody Dumas, Executive Director of Planning and Construction Facility Services for the school district. “It’s one of those things that we weren’t made aware of until recently,” said Dumas. Dumas and other district leaders watched media reports expressing concerns about lead levels in drinking water from schools in nearby school districts. The parents also called the district and asked if they would have lead tests.
“We knew this was something we needed to get started,” said Dumas. The district has discontinued an independent laboratory to carry out the tests. By the end of the month, all public campuses in Sarasota County built prior to 1986 will be sampling, but not all schools in our study area.
In our environment
While the Pinellas County School District takes water samples annually on campus, Polk County schools began testing this year. Manatee County Schools say testing will begin and Pasco County School District is informing us that they are only testing the water at four schools as those schools get water from the county water facility. All other schools receive water from the county, which county leaders confirmed they have not conducted lead tests at any Pasco County school. However, the county said it would run tests on campus if the school district requested it.
The lack of consistent lead testing in schools in Florida is a statewide failure that occurs in a Florida Environmental Report 2017 where the Sunshine State got an “F” for failing to prevent the school water from being infiltrated with lead.
“Lead tests are like Russian roulette,” said Jennifer Rubiello, executive director of Environment Florida, a government advocacy group.
“Tests are really unpredictable. We don’t really know what’s out there, which means Florida isn’t tackling the solution as well, ”she said.
The group, which has been raising its concerns for years, is now calling on lawmakers to pass new rules for school administrators that could include mandatory annual tests or require the county grounds to be equipped with filter systems to remove lead.
“At the very least, we should know that sending our children to school will not lead to lead poisoning,” said Rubiello.
Daisy Brittain is now packing two bottles of water and juice for her sons.
“I’m trying to protect her from ever having to go to a well,” she said. “I don’t want my child to be poisoned where they should feel safe.”