The Fort Worth school district is replacing hundreds of drinking fountains, beginning with its elementary schools, after testing this summer found unsafe levels of lead in the water.
The lead was found in a certain style of fountain that allows water to sit as it is chilled, which lets lead leach into and contaminate the water.
District officials said they don’t believe any children were in any danger during the school year and feel confident the lead issue arose this summer after water was allowed to sit and chill in the fountains.
Blood tests can show if a person has elevated lead levels and parents should take their children to a doctor if they are concerned, officials said.
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“We know this is a really emotional issue. It has to be,” said Barbara Griffith, district spokeswoman. “We’re not trying to hide anything. We’ve put the health and safety of the children first. The testing isn’t complete, but we want to be really transparent about what we’re doing. We want to share this with our parents and with our employees.”
Lead contamination has emerged as a national safety issue after dangerous levels of the toxin were found in tap water in Flint, Mich. According to a report released in June by the Natural Resources Defense Council, titled "What's In Your Water? Flint and Beyond,” “Lead can decrease a child’s cognitive capacity, cause behavior problems, and limit the ability to concentrate — all of which, in turn, affect the ability to learn in school.”
The 86,000-student Fort Worth school district had been in the process of replacing many older-style fountains in its schools, but after safety concerns were raised, officials stepped up the pace. In June the district began testing water at its 140 campuses, said Clint Bond, district spokesman.
Workers have taken 1,481 samples from 116 campuses and the Fort Worth Water Department is testing those samples. Of those samples, 855 have been completed, showing lead levels in 45 samples.
The samples with elevated lead levels were gathered from 28 schools. The levels ranged from 15 parts per billion to as much as 88.9 parts per billion, the district said.
The Environmental Protection Agency places acceptable lead levels at 15 parts per billion. There are no local, state or federal rules that require schools to test drinking water.
The highest amount of lead was found in a staff break room in the library at Stevens Elementary, officials said, and students don’t have access to that area. That fountain is being retested to determine if the sample was not taken properly.
Most of the other results were much lower, and in some cases lead was not detected, the results show.
One kitchen had high levels
The district estimates it will spend up to $800,000 to remove and replace the water fountains that have tested positive for lead contamination. The fountains will all be replaced when school starts Aug. 22, officials said.
“We’ve got a good handle on this,” said Art Cavazos, the school district’s operations chief. “By the time school starts I will be able to look everybody in the face and say we have safe drinking water.”
In some cases, the lead levels lowered after the district flushed the water lines, which is an effective and acceptable method.
The district said it has not heard from any parents regarding lead-related illnesses.
But, it was a parent who raised concerns about lead in the water at the schools, said Steven Furlough, the school district’s environmental manager.
Initial testing showed “mixed results” of lead levels, which led to a district-wide testing program that showed a pattern of high lead levels in water from certain drinking fountains. The fountains and other faucets that supply water for use or drinking have since been tested.
Only one kitchen showed elevated lead levels and workers are trying to determine the source of the lead. In the meantime, the faucet is not being used, Furlough said.
“We have found a couple of our sinks with higher elevated levels, but we’re looking into the reasons for those as well,” Furlough said.
A letter will go home with students on the first day of school telling parents about the lead contamination. Data will be made available on the school’s Facebook page and its website, and by other means when it becomes available, the district said.
60 fountains removed so far
Cavazos said the district will replace about 400 water fountains. About 60 water fountains have been removed so far, officials said.
He said the money to pay for new fountains will come from a contingency fund.
Cavazos said he’s already spoken with a manufacturer to make sure they can get that many fountains in time for the start of school.
The district has been moving toward using a “tankless” type of water fountain, Cavazos said.
Cavazos credits the quick response by the city’s Water Department when the district approached them with the potential lead issue, saying, “We made some great partners.”
John Carman, the city’s water department director, said that this is clearly a case where plumbing fixtures were the cause and that Fort Worth has complied with federal regulations of drinking water since the Lead and Copper Rule was passed in the early 1990s.
“The truth of the matter is, the dividing line has always been at the meter,” Carman said. “In this particular case there is no lead in the water going through the meter.”
Carman commended the school district for its efforts in addressing the issue.
“In light of what is occurring in other parts of the country, Fort Worth ISD realized its need to proactively approach the issue and has done extensive sampling at every campus,” Carman said.
Cavazos said the district will continue testing.
“We’re not done, by any means,” Cavazos said. “We’ll figure out from this where we go. We won’t be without testing.”
Staff writer Diane Smith contributed to this report.
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Source: Fort Worth school district