Students Discover Lead In Tap Water May Be Common In Older Homes

Feb 16, 2017

Do you know how safe your tap water is to drink? 

When fifth- and sixth-grade students at Academy Prep in St. Petersburg researched that question, they learned the answer could come with some serious health consequences.

Last semester, the students in Laura Manke's community cares class embarked on a project, collecting samples of tap water from their homes.  And testing provided by University of South Florida researchers revealed that all of the 46 samples contained lead.

Fortunately, the amount of lead in the water in their homes fell below levels that would trigger action under Environmental Protection Agency standards. But experts, including the EPA, say any amount of lead is not good for the body, especially in children under six. Damage can be permanent.

"Do you guys remember when we studied and we researched lead, some of the things we found that lead poisoning could lead to if there's too much lead?" Manke said.

"Brain damage," one student said.

"Behavioral problems," said another.

They also knew that can also affect the kidneys, nervous system and red blood cells.

Manke teamed up with Bernardo Motta, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg journalism professor, to develop the project after thousands of residents were exposed to lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan.

Motta said his journalism students in the Neighborhood News Bureau looked at the area around Academy Prep, because their reporting knew it looked similar to Flint, with lower-income residents living in a predominantly minority neighborhood made up of older homes.

"The problem was when my students in the Neighborhood News Bureau started investigating, they started finding that all of characteristics of the neighborhoods that usually have high levels of lead matched the neighborhoods here," Motta said. 

Motta told the Academy Prep students that the lead in their water likely came from pipes or faucets in their homes.

That raised a question from student Ya-Sin Ali-McClendon: "Why did people even make the pipes out of lead in the first place?"

The students learned that until the early 1900s, it was common to use lead pipes for interior plumbing. After the public learned about the risks, plumbers began using copper pipes, but they were often held together with lead solder. When water runs through the pipes, pieces of lead can flake off. Faucets and other fixtures also contained lead. By 1986, lead plumbing of any kind was banned. 

Because these pipes are still in and under homes, St. Petersburg and other cities regularly test water for lead. 

St. Petersburg's interim water resources director, John Palenchar, said the city uses corrosion control in its water, which causes a calcium buildup in the pipes. The buildup prevents the pipes from corroding and stops metals from leaching into the water supply.

"That's really what happened in Flint. When they had their issues, they did not have good corrosion control. So they had a very what's called in this industry aggressive water, which ate up the material in the pipes," he said.

Palenchar says older homes tend to have a good calcium coating on the pipes. But in homes built between 1982 and 1988, small amounts of lead are sometimes found in the tap water, especially if water has been sitting in the pipes for days on end.

After the students at Academy Prep learned the results of the lead testing, letters were sent home inviting parents to a meeting with Cynthia Keeton, a lead expert from Hillsborough County's health department.

Keeton told them that even homes with low amounts of lead in their pipes should run faucets for at least 20 seconds and flush the line before drinking or cooking with the water. They should always cook with cold water, she said, and those who are able should buy a filter that is certified by NSF International. It will remove almost all of the lead. 

“Any amount of lead is a concern," Keeton said. "That's the whole key."

After listening to Keeton's advice, Academy Prep parent Cheryl Grant said she will buy a filter for her sink, and she would like to have her children's blood levels tested for lead.

"Only because I would want to know. And I wouldn't want my kids to get sick from lead, something that can be prevented,” Grant said. "So, yeah, it's a scary situation."

Some of the students in Manke's class said they already take precautions.

Arzhanette Rhine's tap water had one of the least amounts of lead in the class. Still, she said her mother doesn't trust the tap water.

"My mom has a thing she does not let us drink out of the sink," Arzhanette said. "She says 'That is so nasty. Ya'll better not be drinking out of my sink."

Her family drinks exclusively from water bottles. And after receiving the lead test results, other in her class may follow suit. 

For more on how students in the Neighborhood News Bureau contributed to the project, catch University Beat on Tuesday, Feb. 21.