Houston Schools to Test for Lead in Water

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

Houston Independent School District, the largest district in the state of Texas, will begin testing water for lead in all 158 elementary schools starting in the next school year.

KHOU-TV's Scott Noll says the announcement comes just weeks after KHOU 11 Investigates looked into whether Houston-area districts were monitoring students' drinking water.

Under state and federal regulations, schools receiving water from municipal water systems are not required to test water inside school buildings, but the EPA recommends lead testing and has for many years.

Interim Superintendent of HISD Ken Huewitt said because of parental concern he has initiated a "proactive and aggressive approach" to water testing. The cost of the testing is estimated to be $130,000. Middle and high school testing will be done in subsequent years.

Advocates for the testing say that young children are more susceptible to the exposure to lead, which can result in lowered IQ levels, learning disabilities, and reduced attention spans.

Orell Fitzsimmons, field director for Local 100, the union that represents HISD support staff, says the cost is just the tip of the iceberg.

"The superintendent is doing the right thing" said Fitzsimmons. "We're going to find out if there is any lead or not. And if there isn't, that's what we want to know. If there is any lead in certain schools, we need to clean it up and fix it. There's not one child that deserves to be infested with this stuff."

Five schools in the district were tested in March and were all within acceptable standards, according to KTRK-TV.

Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, who was instrumental in uncovering lead infested water in Flint, Michigan, said that it would be highly unusual if the HISD did not find some troublesome levels of lead in its schools if the testing is done properly.

"The worst examples are the schools that never test because then you just don't know," Edwards said. "The sooner you get the bad news, the sooner you can prevent harm to your kids."

Ericka Mellon, writing for the Houston Chronicle, says schools built before 1986, when the ban on lead passed in Congress, are most likely to have high levels of lead. Other serious health problems linked to lead ingestion include brain disorders, heart and kidney disease, and fertility issues.

Across the country, approximately 1% of kids 6-months to 6-years-old have had elevated lead levels — a rate that is much lower than it was decades ago, explains Dr. Marcus Hanfling, assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine.

Hanfling manages a lead and environmental clinic in Pasadena. He says the norm is that kids are tested for lead levels and then the search for the source of the lead ensues. He added that this proactive approach makes much more sense.

"We know that there is no safe level of lead consumption," said the incoming American Medical Association president, Andrew W. Gurman, in a June statement.

The problem is not necessarily coming from the city water pipes, writes Carter Sherman for the Houston Press. The contamination could be in the pipes that the water travels through to get to the water fountain inside the schools.

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