A test by a Florida A&M University (FAMU) professor found that more than a dozen schools in the Leon County School District have significant levels of lead in the water systems.
Donald Axelrad, an assistant professor at the FAMU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences Institute of Public Health, was the lead researcher in the Leon County drinking water monitoring project.
After reading about the Flint, Mich., water crisis, Axelrad decided to test local water in Tallahassee elementary schools to see if local children were at risk.
All 16 elementary schools tested had levels of lead in the cafeteria taps and drinking fountains. Two schools — Killearn Lakes Elementary and W.T. Moore Elementary — had levels higher than 15 parts per billion (ppb) which is deemed unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
While 15 ppb is deemed safe by the EPA, the American Academy of Pediatricians says levels under 1 ppb are safe to drink.
All 16 schools’ lead levels are examined in this map.
Lead Affects Children’s Health
Axelrad says lead in water affects children worse than it affects adults.
“Lead is one of the major environmental health problems for children in this country. I’ve long worked on other metals. In the last couple of years, I’ve started studying lead, and I’m aware now that it is more problematic than just about any other metal,” Axelrad said.
Axelrad and his team took the water samples on Aug. 3 and Aug. 4. Leon County officials say the results were not immediately released to the public because only two schools exceeded EPA safe levels.
According to Ronnie Youngblood, the district’s divisional director for maintenance, this is just the beginning of lead testing. The district has already begun testing the water at the other 27 district schools, and the officials hope to have the testing finished by their next school board meeting on Dec. 13.
“We plan to institute what’s called an aerator maintenance program, and we have already instituted a flushing program at each one of our schools,” Youngblood said about the district’s steps to decreasing lead levels in water.
An aerator maintenance program will consist of removing, cleaning, and replacing aerators, a piece found at the tip of most faucets, to eliminate potential particulate lead, according to the EPA.
“As of right now, we’ve sent out info to our schools to forward out to their school communities,” Leon County Schools Spokesman Chris Petley told the Tallahassee Democrat.
Petley said the district has reached out to the EPA, Leon County government, Talquin Electric and Department of Environmental Protection who have all agreed to work with the district to decrease the lead levels.
Lead in water can have adverse effects on children such as reduced IQ, decreased attention span and increased aggression.
“Children between the age of birth and six or seven have rapidly developing brains. And their intestines are such that they take up far more lead when they ingest it than adults do,” Axelrad said. “It is a toxin that has permanent effects.”
Collecting Water Samples
Axelrad worked with FAMU professors Alan Becker and Charles Jagoe, and several Florida State University (FSU) professors to conduct the study.
The team of professors traveled to the 16 elementary schools where they took two samples from each school: one from a water fountain and one from a cafeteria food preparation source. After the samples were taken, the team analyzed the water at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at FSU.
Due to the recent school superintendent change, a permanent fix to the lead problem has yet to be discussed. Youngblood says solutions will be brought before the school board at the Dec. 13 meeting which is open to the public.
“As we move forward we are anticipating [improved] results. But what we will have to determine is what level of lead the superintendent, the board and the public will be comfortable with,” Youngblood said.
The idea of safe lead levels in water is one thing Axelrad said he would like to see changed. Axelrad believes no drinking water should have lead.
“None of [the safe lead level statistics] are as scientifically based or as public health based as I would like to see. If we go to a point of use filter, we can set the limit [of lead] at zero. It’s just about as easy to do that than to bring it to one part per billion level. So if we go that route, we should certainly set zero as our target,” Axelrad said.
Axelrad, his team and school officials assure that Tallahassee does not have a water crisis.
Each school’s lead level is provided on this map in order of highest to lowest water lead concentration.