In January, while the legislative session was just getting started, a concerned Tallahassee mom and environmental activist interrupted a Senate committee’s discussion of a school vouchers bill to bring up an issue she felt no one was addressing.
“We are trying to get the lead out of drinking water in schools,” Amy Datz said. “I apologize if you feel this is not relevant but I just wanted to have a moment to get in front of you and tell you we are seeking funds from your committee.”
Datz, who is retired, along with Tallahassee immunologist Ron Saff and two professors from Florida State University and Florida A&M tried to lobby the Legislature to approve $1 million to purchase filters for cafeteria spigots in all Florida schools. Lawmakers told them they would try to help, but ultimately the proposal drifted into oblivion.
On Tuesday, Saff, the professors and other activists held a news conference announcing momentum for their cause, this time from Washington. Sen. Bill Nelson and 28 other Democratic senators wrote a letter asking for federal funding to test the water at all schools nationwide that offer free or reduced meals to low-income students.
“We can’t accept this ‘acceptable risk level’ stuff anymore,” said Linda Young, director of the Florida Clean Water Network. “Our children have to drink water and that is not the place to have 'acceptable risk levels.' ”
The activists pointed to water test results from December 2017, conducted by FSU Professor Vincent Salters, an expert in geochemistry, who found dangerous levels of lead up to 25 parts per billion in some Leon County schools, which has since begun purchasing filters.
Salters said the lead in these schools likely came from the schools’ piping, and similar pipes are used in schools statewide. A national report by the National Resources Defense Council last May found that more generally, Florida’s drinking water quality ranks near the bottom of the U.S.
Only four states in the nation require lead testing in their public schools. In Florida, all water at publicly operated water plants is regularly tested, which means the water is cleared before it reaches the schools. Some districts conduct tests at the schools voluntarily, further measuring if the water was tainted by pipes in the schools.
Miami-Dade and Pinellas school districts both said they test their schools’ water. Pasco County schools test five of their schools which get water from the district-run wells, while the city or county tests the water going out to the rest.
Hernando relies on the county’s tests. Grayson Kamm, a spokesperson for Hillsborough schools, said that district has a “pilot program” to explore testing its schools’ water in the future.
However, there’s a disagreement between the districts and the activists on where to draw the line for what “safe” water really means, and how reliable testing results are. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain the position on their websites that “there is no known safe level of lead in a child's blood,” the EPA “action level” is 15 parts per billion of lead in drinking water.
In other words, the EPA doesn’t even start recommending that babies and pregnant women switch to bottled water until 15 parts per billion. That’s the standard the districts use to evaluate whether they need to make a change with their water.
But the two professors at the news conference, Salters and Donald Axelrad of FAMU, said that standard is too high and testing can vary so widely in the same building that schools need filters to truly be safe.
Lead testing can be notoriously dicey because the levels of lead in the pipes at any given moment can be inconsistent. Exposure to lead causes loss of IQ and other mental and behavioral issues.
“If you look at the causes of IQ loss in children, the No. 1 cause is premature birth. The No. 2 cause for loss of IQ is increased lead levels,” Salters said. “This is a major issue.”
Saff said his coalition, which now includes the NAACP and the Florida Clean Water Network, is working with state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, to present a bill for the next legislative session that would require Florida schools to have filters on the cafeteria spigots and drinking fountains.