Five years ago, the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan launched a wake-up call for communities around the country, particularly at schools where children are susceptible to lead poisoning.
The public health crisis up north did not go unnoticed in Florida — some school districts have tested for lead and installed filters in drinking fountains to protect students from the dangers of lead.
But those projects have been voluntary.
Parents and kids may not know it, but Florida law doesn’t require schools to test drinking water for lead.
And for the most part, there’s no federal requirement for such testing, even though exposure to lead can slow a child’s development, damage hearing and speech and prompt learning disabilities, according to public health officials.
Experts in the field find the problem upsetting, to say the least.
“We have a lot we can do, and frankly, it is our moral obligation as adults that our children are not exposed to lead,’ says toxicologist Donald Axelrad, an assistant professor at the Institute of Public Health at Florida A & M University in Tallahassee.
Axelrad was part of team of experts that tested for lead in drinking fountains and cafeteria taps in Leon County schools in the state capital in 2016. That testing in some cases showed elevated levels of lead, and school officials are doing repairs, according to Leon schools spokesman Chris Petley.
But as it stands now, little is being done across Florida when it comes to lead issues in schools: A “Get the Lead Out” study published last month gave Florida an “F” when it comes to protecting kids from lead exposure at school.
Twenty-one other states also got an F, according to the analysis of 32 states by the nonprofit groups Environment America Research and Policy Center and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund.
According to the study, “Test results now show that lead is even contaminating drinking water in schools and pre-schools — flowing from thousands of fountains and faucets where our kids drink water every day.
And, “In all likelihood, the confirmed cases of lead in schools’ water are just the tip of the iceberg. Most schools have at least some lead in their pipes, plumbing, or fixtures. And where there is lead, there is risk of contamination.”
Class action lawsuits have been filed in several states over lead problems at schools — but apparently not in Florida.
“We haven’t litigated nor, to our knowledge, are aware of any litigation on this matter,” said spokeswoman Gaby Guadalupe, of the ACLU Foundation of Florida.
Testing for lead and fixing lead problems does require money.
And money is about priorities — for families on a household budget or lawmakers building Florida’s massive state budget. Thus far, toxic lead issues at schools do not seem to be a priority during this spring’s legislative session.
State Sen. Janet Cruz, who represents parts of Hillsborough, has tried to push legislation this session to install filters in drinking fountains at older schools, meaning schools built before 1986.
Hillsborough’s public schools had done its own lead testing and found some fixtures, including drinking fountains, showing elevated lead levels. Those fixtures were taken out of operation until problems could be fixed, said Hillsborough Schools spokeswoman Tanya Arja.
Cruz managed to get her bill approved in the Senate Education Committee last week, but it would still need approval from the full Senate and House. The House version of the legislation has never been considered in any committee.
“I’m going to go talk to the (House) Speaker and see if we can move it forward. This bill is important,” Cruz said after the Senate Education Committee meeting last week.
The Senate analyzed how much it would cost for filters for school drinking fountains, and the price tag was about $4.5-million in connection with 11,242 drinking fountains in various schools. Filters for kitchen fixtures in schools would cost another $4.2-million. More funds would be needed for replacement filters down the road.
Still, “You just can’t keep ignoring it,” Cruz said about the lead issues that could potentially endanger students.
School boards may levy up to a certain amount for capital projects and maintenance, collecting money from local taxpayers.
All but 11 school boards levied the full amount in 2018-19, which will generate $2.8-billion for projects that can include water filters, according to Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Audrey Walden.
The Legislature also gives state dollars to schools for maintenance, repairs and renovations. This school year, $50-million went to traditional public schools for those purposes, and $145.3-million went to charter schools that are public but are run by private entities.
But traditional public schools say they are stretched thin, and the state in the past has reduced the levy amount that can generate money for projects and maintenance, said Alachua Public Schools spokeswoman Jackie Johnson.
Johnson said the district decided to move “preemptively” to put filters in water fountains after some parents thought schools should be tested for lead.
The district didn’t test every school, Johnson said, but it decided to install the filters out of “an abundance of caution.”