Energy & Environment

HISD should do more to address lead contamination in the water at schools, local groups say

Past testing by the district found more than 200 schools had at least one tap test positive for lead contamination.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Children head into Benbrook Elementary for the first day of school on Aug. 23, 2021.

Local advocacy groups are calling on the Houston Independent School District to do more to address lead contamination in drinking water at its schools, after previous testing found more than a third of taps tested had some level of lead contamination.

In a letter sent to the district Wednesday, local environmental groups and advocates asked Superintendent Millard House to consider replacing drinking fountains with water bottle hydration stations that are equipped with lead filters.

"This solution eliminates one common source of lead (fountains) and captures lead coming from plumbing or pipes," reads the letter.

In the 2016-17 school year, HISD voluntarily tested drinking water at its schools and found exceedingly high levels of lead – above 20 parts per billion – at 34 schools in the district. While the district took steps to address the contamination at those schools, advocates say they haven't done enough to address lower levels of lead that are still present at dozens of schools.

"Our children need safe drinking water, especially at school where they go to learn and play each and every day," Rev. James Caldwell with the Coalition of Community Organizations said at a press conference this week.

No level of lead in a child's blood is considered safe, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Exposure to lead, which is a neurotoxin, can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, cause slow growth and development, and can lead to hearing and speech problems.

The EPA requires utilities to take action if lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion in water, but encourages schools “to reduce their lead levels to the lowest possible concentrations.”

Health experts and environmental groups say the action level should be stricter, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends water lead concentrations at schools not exceed 1 part per billion.

"We know that even low levels of lead can have large impacts on children’s health," said Claire Ganschow with the Texas Public Interest Research group.

The past testing by the district found that 216 schools had at least one tap where lead levels in the water exceeded 1 part per billion, according to an analysis of the testing data done by several environmental groups. On top of that, 57 schools in the district had 10 or more taps with traces of lead that exceeded 1 part per billion.

"The problem is really pervasive all across the district," said John Rompler, clean water director with Environment America. "So really, it requires a much more comprehensive preventative approach than simply replacing one or two faucets or fountains where lead tests happen to confirm the high presence of lead."

Advocates are pushing the district to use federal COVID relief funds to address the problem by replacing drinking fountains with water bottle hydration stations that are equipped with filters that remove lead.

In a statement, HISD said it has plans to retest the water for lead using the latest health and environmental guidance.

“HISD will continue to focus on and prioritize the safety of all students and staff," read the statement. “We now have the opportunity to begin testing again and are making plans to initiate the process based on the updated and current guidance from multiple resources including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and American Academy of Pediatrics.”

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