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Lawmakers consider requiring Texas schools to test water for lead

Advocates for mandatory water testing say schools are particularly vulnerable because so many of them are aging and have older pipes and water fountains.

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Medical, environmental and left-leaning advocacy groups urged a Texas House committee on Tuesday to advance legislation requiring the state’s public schools to test for lead in their drinking water. But one environmental group said the bill as written doesn’t go far enough and some cash-strapped school districts might be wary of the cost.

House Bill 2395 by Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, would require the state’s 1,200 school districts and charters to pay for annual water supply testing, which is estimated to cost up to $3,000 per building. 

In the wake of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, several legislatures in other states have passed, or are considering, legislation requiring regular water testing in schools and day cares. While a majority of schools in Texas and other states receive water from public utilities, which are required to regularly test for lead and other contaminants, advocates for mandatory water testing say schools are particularly vulnerable because so many of them are aging and have older pipes and water fountains.

Elizabeth Doyel, executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters, which pitched Collier on the bill, said she’s not aware of any public water utilities in the state that regularly test school water supplies. 

"We’re concerned this could be happening across the state," she told the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday. "How do we fix a problem in Texas if we don’t know what it is and where it lies?"

The average age of Texas public school facilities was 34.5 years, according to a 2008 Texas Comptroller’s Office report. That means that a large share of schools were built before 1986, when the federal government banned use of pipes with more than 8 percent lead content. 

(Collier indicated the latest version of her bill might limit testing to older campuses built before the federal government banned lead pipes.)

Several Texas school districts that have recently carried out voluntary water testing have discovered significant amounts of lead, prompting them to replace old water fountains and take other action. Lead levels in drinking water supplies at two elementary schools — Morningside Elementary in Fort Worth, Golfcrest Elementary in Houston — was found to be more than 1,100 parts per billion. That is exponentially higher than the 20 parts per billion threshold for schools set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Public water utilities are required to take action if 10 percent of samples collected exceed 15 parts per billion. A school water testing bill that passed the Illinois Legislature in January requires schools to notify families of lead levels at or greater than 5 parts per billion.

But medical groups say no level of lead is safe for children. There is growing evidence that lead exposure in children leads to behavioral issues including attention deficit disorder and decreased IQ, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

"There are number of health effects that are consequential to kids," Dr. Van Ramshorst told the committee Tuesday on behalf of the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Pediatric Society, noting the main whistleblower in Flint was a pediatrician.

Harping on those impacts, Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger told the committee that Collier’s bill also should establish testing protocols and require remediation if tests show high lead levels. He cited a recent news report detailing the discovery of far higher lead levels in New York City schools after a change in water testing protocols.

"We absolutely need to address this problem," Metzger said, explaining that he couldn't support the bill "unfortunately because we feel the bill does not adequately ensure we find the lead."

 A recently analysis by Metzger's group found that 65 percent of schools that have undertaken voluntary testing have discovered some amount of lead in drinking water supplies.

But Doyel, of the League of Conservation Voters, said requiring remediation would diminish the bill's chances of passing given the state budget crunch. Gathering data is a good starting point, she said, acknowledging some school officials are already wary of the bill because it requires them to pay for testing costs. (No school officials testified on the bill Tuesday.)

"I just don’t want perfection to be the enemy of the good," she told the committee Tuesday.

The Texas Education Agency estimates annual water testing would cost $22 million statewide — $2,500 times 8,685 total campuses. Additional remediation costs "could be substantial," according to a fiscal analysis of the bill.

Collier said she hopes to address the cost issue in a later version of the bill. It was left pending in committee Tuesday.

Read more of the Tribune's related coverage:

  • Tens of thousands of Texans live in places where the drinking water contains toxic levels of arsenic — a known carcinogen — and the state isn’t doing enough to discourage them from consuming it, according to a new report from an environmental group. 
  • With the crisis of contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, Texans are asking about the safety of their own cities' water supplies.

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