TAMPA, Fla. — Hillsborough County and a state lawmaker have a plan to make water your kids drink in school safer.
The public/private partnership is called “Get the Lead Out.” It puts water filters on all drinking fountains in the 136 Hillsborough County schools built before 1986. That’s when lead was widely used in plumbing materials across the United States.
Wednesday, crews installed the first three filters on drinking fountains at Shore Elementary Magnet School in Ybor City. Eventually, every fountain will have the “point-of-use” filter.
The company installing them, One Green Filter, says it's able to filter out 99.9 percent of contaminants from water, including lead, chlorine, tastes and odors.
Chuck Erb works with the company and is a dad. He says as a parent something like this would give him peace of mind for his young daughter in school.
“100 percent! 100 percent! Even at her school I did something like this. I contributed and gave it to them, but yes 100 percent I would do this for my child and for anyone in my family,” said Erb.
Last August, Hillsborough County Schools came under fire after they voluntarily tested for lead in drinking water and found 26 samples above the EPA’s recommended standard of 15 parts per billion. Parents said they were never told.
As of December, the district had tested all schools and 11,595 fixtures. Of those, 207 came back with lead levels above the EPA’s recommendation.
Of those fixtures, 40 were drinking fountains and were replaced.
10Investigates’ Courtney Robinson asked Superintendent Jeff Eakins how any level of lead would be acceptable coming from a water fountain.
“We know that the EPA has particular guidelines. We know that we are following those particular guidelines, but we also know that we also have to strive to be better. Water is consumed by everyone and so we want to make sure that this is once again the top priority,” said Eakins.
There is no law requiring schools to test for lead in water.
The EPA also clarified its “recommended standard.” That is the level at which the EPA recommends action to reduce lead levels. It was based on EPA’s evaluation of the levels of lead that could be reliably attained through corrosion control treatment in water systems serving homes with lead service lines and plumbing materials.
The EPA says no level of lead is safe. Any exposure means there is a risk.
State Sen. Janet Cruz, FL-18, agrees. She unsuccessfully introduced Senate Bill 66 in Tallahassee this past legislative session. It called on water filters on all drinking fountains in public schools built pre-1986.
She came back to Hillsborough and through partnerships with major corporations and $25,000 each from the Vinik and DeBartolo Foundations, she was able to privately fund installing filters in Hillsborough County schools.
“No amount of lead in the water for our children is fair or right,” said Cruz.
Cruz admits this doesn’t fix the root issue, which is aging infrastructure, corroding pipes and plumbing with lead materials.
“It is a Band-Aid, but it is a Band-Aid that we can afford for now. Replacing lead pipes in schools that are nearly 100 years old as this one (Shore Elementary Magnet) is a monumental task,” said Cruz.
School leaders want to reassure parents that they believe the water is safe and these filters provide additional protection. They are sending a letter to all parents in the school system to answer questions about school water testing and the “Get the Lead Out” effort.
“We’re doing everything we can in Hillsborough County to test the water continuously every year. No matter if we have filters or not, they will be tested to ensure that they are below the guidelines, but we’re gonna do everything we can to continue to be proactive and prevent any amount of lead that comes out of the drinking fountains at the schools for your child,” Eakins said.
This program will take $250,000 over two years, and filters do have to be replaced each year.
Other districts have not yet followed, but Hillsborough and Cruz are hopeful they will see this as a cost-effective and safe solution.
10Investigates reached out to other school districts to find out where they stand with testing water for lead.
- Pinellas County has tested since 2016. They tell us currently no schools exceed the lead action level of 15ppbs from the EPA.
- Pasco County only tests schools that have their own water plants. Those schools are Cypress Elementary and The Hudson Complex.
- Polk County told us the district began testing last year and has tested all schools. They say they have eight fixtures at six schools that remain out of service until repairs are complete and additional testing is finished.
- Sarasota does test for lead in school drinking water. They found three test sites with lead levels of the EPA’s lead action level. Those schools are McIntosh Middle School, Venice Middle School and Englewood Elementary School. They replaced the problems at McIntosh and Venice. Drinking fountains at Englewood in Building 6 were found with lead. All fountains were disabled and bottled water was supplied. Building 6 was slated to be demolished this summer.
Some districts rely on the county or city to do testing.
Hernando County school district does not currently test. They say water is tested by the County and City of Brooksville.
Citrus, Hardee, Highlands and Manatee school districts do not do their own testing.
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