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Senator wants older schools to filter drinking water for lead

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida schools built before 1986 would have to install filters in all drinking fountains to remove lead that seeps in from old plumbing if a bill the Senate Education Committee passed unanimously Tuesday makes it into law.

Because of their age, the bill would apply to a majority of schools in Duval and Putnam counties, and a dozen schools in St. Johns County. At $100 per drinking fountain, it would cost $40,000 to add filters to older fountains in St. Johns County and many times more to add filters to multiple fountains at more than 100 schools in Jacksonville.

Both St. Johns and Putnam counties told News4Jax that while many of their schools are older then 1986, a lot of the water fountains in those schools have been replaced in the last 15 years.

Clay County said 23 of its schools were built before 1986. The district said it has never considered adding filters to the approximately 15-20 water fountains in each school because no water testing results have ever required such action. 

Clay County Schools said water testing is done routinely. “Water sources, whether district-owned or municipality-owned are required by statute to be tested monthly,” a district spokesperson said. 

The district is responsible for testing three district-owned wells that serve four schools (Clay Hill, Wilkinson Elementary, Wilkinson Jr. High, and McRae Elementary). The district said if any test indicates higher than normal ranges of lead, even if elevated within the normal range, Health Department protocol is followed. Retesting is immediately conducted and all testing of Clay County Schools owned wells is conducted by a third party certified testing facility.

Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz, of Tampa, is pushing for the bill after tests found lead in the drinking water in schools around her district. Other Florida districts also have found lead dissolved in drinking water through old lead pipes or lead used to solder copper pipes.

“We have safeguards in place to protect children from lead paint, we protect ourselves with filters on our own refrigerators’ drinking water dispensers, yet we’ve done nothing to keep them from drinking water out of tainted water fountains in our schools on a daily basis,” Cruz said.

Several teachers and environmentalists were at the meeting to support the measure.

“Lead exposure causes diminished intellectual and academic abilities (and) higher rates of neurobehavioral disorders such as ADHD,” said Dr. Ronald Saff, part of a group called Physicians for Social Responsibility that tested drinking water at the Capitol. “Not only is lead a problem in many schools throughout this state, but it’s also a problem here in the Capitol. We found elevated lead levels in half of the water fountains that we sampled.”

Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley said putting filters in is a good start but schools should eventually replace old plumbing.

“Anybody with eight grandchildren thinks about the future a lot and what that’s going to look like,” Baxley said. “We certainly want them to be sharp and healthy.”

Democratic Sen. Bill Montford is the former school superintendent in Leon County, where lead was also found in school drinking water. He said he couldn’t oppose the bill but raised concerns about the cost to install filters.

“This is a no-brainer, but it’s also a no-brainer that we need the funds,” Montford said.

After the meeting, Cruz said she believes the funding issue is why the bill stalled in the House, but she said she planned to meet with Republican Speaker Jose Oliva to try to get it moving.

A spokesperson for Clay County Schools told News4Jax the district is aware of the bill and said the district complies with current state health requirements and will continue to do so if the bill passes.   

If the bill passes, the district said a revenue source would have to be identified for any replacement effort. New/replacement water fountains range between $500 (basic replacement) up to $1,700 each (for newer filling station capability).

Lead can accumulate in your body over time and the risk is greatest is for children. It can result in behavioral problems, lower IQ, hyperactivity and other problems.

Dangerous amounts of lead can also be found in the water at your home, but home test kits are available from Home Depot and other home-improvement stores.

The JEA will also come out and test water for its residential customer for free. Call 904-655-4521 to schedule a test. The JEA and other utilities post yearly drinking water quality report on their websites or that of the county health department.

To find the closest state or local drinking water authority, visit EPA.gov.