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Experts Alert About Risk of Lead Exposure in Florida; Suggest Testing Schools' Drinking Water

Lead can enter drinking water supplies through plumbing and fixtures after it leaves a municipal water system.
Edwards, Marc and Simoni Triantafyllidou, Lead (Pb) in U.S. Drinking Water: School Case Studies (2009)
Lead can enter drinking water supplies through plumbing and fixtures after it leaves a municipal water system.

A new report by the advocacy group Environment Florida argues that water in Florida’s schools and day cares may contain dangerous levels of lead, but that there is no way of knowing how widespread the problem is. Its release coincides with the launch of a nationwide campaign to ‘Get the Lead Out.'

Medical research has found that lead exposure in young children, even in very low concentrations, can cause irreversible deficits in brain development, leading to cognitive and behavioral problems.  

"In terms of tackling the lead issue in the state of Florida, schools are the first place we should be starting," said Jennifer Rubiello, director of Environment Florida.

Unfortunately,  there is very little available data on lead levels in schools.

Last spring, Tallahassee physician Ron Saff spearheaded efforts to test for lead in the water at 16 north Florida schools.

"We found lead in 16 of 16 schools we tested,” Saff said, leading the local school board to make a series of changes in maintenance and upgrades to the schools’ plumbing systems.

“Most Floridians hear about lead in the water, and they say that’s not a Florida problem, that’s happening in Flint. That’s happening somewhere else,” says Staff. In reality, he says, the same galvanized pipes, solder, and other plumbing fixtures that leached lead into the Tallahassee schools he tested are likely to be present in thousands of other elementary schools around the state.The Environment Florida report draws in part on Saff's research. “These confirmed cases of lead-laced water are likely  just the tip of the iceberg,” said Rubiello.

The report compares laws and regulations around lead contamination across 16 states, including several—like New York and New Jersey— that have enacted legislation for lead testing in schools in the wake of the Flint water crisis. Many states, including Florida, do not require testing for lead in public schools at all. Florida imposes no requirements beyond EPA regulations that call for testing water systems for lead above a threshold of fifteen parts per billion. That standard, known as an “action level,” only requires disclosure of test results when more than 10% of tests show a level above 15 ppb.

According to Dee Ann Miller, a spokesperson for Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, the agency selects testing sites according to the placement of lead lines and other factors to focus on areas with the highest risk. “The relatively rare cases we are encountering exceedances for lead are typically related to older pipes and fixtures within homes and facilities, not the water system itself,” Miller wrote in an email.

Ron Saff argues that states’ reliance on the EPA’s 15 ppb standard is misguided. “The EPA guideline was never intended to be a health standard,” said Ron Saff. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a limit of one part per billion for lead in drinking water in schools. “The body does not need lead. There is no safe blood level for lead,” Saff said.

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Rowan Moore Gerety