This story has been updated to clarify Houston ISD's testing plans.
The Environmental Protection Agency says there is is no safe level for lead.
Seven Dallas ISD campuses had high levels of copper or lead in drinking water when tested this fall, according to results released by the district this week.The district was prompted to take action after the Fort Worth school district found that dozens of schools there had elevated lead levels this summer. Dallas’ elevated levels were found at: Woodrow Wilson High, Preston Hollow Elementary, Billy Earl Dade Middle, James Madison High, Skyline High and both Wilmer-Hutchins high school and elementary.
Christopher Gray, DISD’s director of environmental health and safety, said Friday that the district is in the process of either fitting fountains with new filters or replacing them. He stressed that the vast majority of drinking water in DISD is safe.
The Environmental Protection Agency says there is is no safe level for lead. In general, it requires action if levels are at least 15 parts per billion in water. Schools don’t typically fall under such EPA requirements, but the agency does recommend they take action if levels are at least 20 parts per billion. The agency recommends action for copper if levels are higher than 1.3 parts per million. Dallas ISD’s highest lead reading was at Madison High School, which had a reading of 160 parts per billion -- eight times the recommended level for action for schools. Wilmer-Hutchins Elementary had the highest copper reading at 3 parts per million, more than twice the recommended level.
Continued exposure to lead can have serious health effects, especially in the brain development of young children. Too much copper can cause vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and stomach cramps and has been associated with liver damage and kidney disease. Dustin Marshall, whose District 2 includes Woodrow and Preston Hollow Elementary, wouldn't comment on the tests, having not been informed by the district about the results.
"We're certainly going to take any positive tests for lead very seriously, and we'll look into every way that we need to remediate this and ensure the safety of our children," Marshall said.
The district did not test each fountain in schools but instead relied on random testing that reflected a statistical representation of those used, Gray said. That meant some campuses only had two samples collected while others had several. Since schools aren’t required to test water, many Texas districts hadn’t done widespread testing before this summer. They typically only examine water when there were concerns, such as when Dallas tested at South Oak Cliff High School following community outcry over the school’s condition.
“I called around to districts across the state and -- since this is so new -- found that no one was doing the same thing,” Gray said. “I wanted to choose the best part of every strategy because I wanted to be sure we could defend the quality of how we went about testing.”
Districts have taken various approaches. Houston ISD reviewed only elementary schools initially with plans to finish all schools by the end of the year. Fort Worth and Arlington tested each fountain and sink in use at all schools in their districts. Plano took random samples at its older campuses. Gray said a statistical representation was the best approach for Dallas, the state’s second largest district, because of cost and time. The district spent $542,280 for testing that was done by two outside consultants. Gray said that before water sources were tested, they were shut off and remained unused for at least eight hours, as recommended by the EPA for the best results.
If elevated copper or lead levels were found, the district did follow-up testing. The district will fix or replace all similar models of water fountains on campuses that had elevated levels. The cost was unavailable Friday. Gray said at this point, there is no reason to anticipate the need for additional testing in Dallas. He added that Dallas ISD only had a few fountains similar to those that caused the most problems in the Fort Worth school district. Those have a metal reservoir tank that never completely empties. Similar fountains in Dallas ISD did not have such elevated levels, he noted.
Fort Worth officials are nearly finished replacing about 500 fountains, district spokesman Clint Bond said. The cost will be lower than the anticipated $800,000, Bond said. Last March, Dallas moved several hundred employees from the district-owned Cotton building after water testing found high levels of lead and other problems. Cities and states across the country have started examining their aging infrastructure after families had been exposed to dangerously high lead levels in Flint, Mich. High levels have been found in schools from Portland to New York.
Now more states want to require some type of periodic review as a result. Just this week Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a new law requiring lead testing in schools that were built before 2000 and have students up to the fifth grade.
Staff writer Corbett Smith contributed to this report.
Beyond Flint: Excessive lead levels found in almost 2,000 water systems across all 50 states
Under the EPA's Lead and Copper Rule, implemented in 1991, the government's approach for protecting people from lead in drinking water has relied heavily on water systems monitoring for indications that their water has become more corrosive. The more corrosive the water, the more lead will be drawn out of pipes. Treatment of water with anti-corrosion chemicals can only reduce, not eliminate, lead from leaching into tap water in invisible and tasteless doses.
That’s why the EPA's National Drinking Water Advisory Council wrote agency leaders in December calling for removing lead service lines "to the greatest degree possible." It's a daunting recommendation since in most cases, the water utility owns part of the line and the rest belongs to the homeowner. A credit ratings firm warned this month that replacing lead service lines could cost tens of billions of dollars.
"We're now dealing with a legacy issue on private property distributed throughout many communities," said Tracy Mehan, the American Water Works Association's executive director of government affairs. The cost to replace each service line can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Meanwhile, the EPA advisory council, whose members include experts from water utilities and state agencies, recommended that EPA take numerous steps to strengthen the existing regulation. They include developing a "household action level" that would trigger public health actions when lead contamination reaches certain levels and ensuring the public receives more information about the risks they face.
In addition, state water regulators say, federal officials need to tell water utilities what level of lead contamination indicates an acute health risk that should trigger a "do not drink" alert to all of the systems' customers. The EPA is evaluating the recommendations and expects to propose revisions to its lead contamination regulations in 2017.
"We really recognize there's a need to strengthen the rule," Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Water, said in an interview.
While he characterized Flint as an outlier, he said, "There’s no question we have challenges with lead in drinking water across the country. Millions of lead service lines in thousands of systems.”
Changing the rules could take at least a year. Beauvais said the EPA is working now to make sure states fully enforce existing rules. The agency last month sent letters to governors and state regulators calling for greater attention to drinking water oversight. While federal rules are made by the EPA, they're enforced by the states.
Because of Flint, some utilities and state water regulators said they were already taking a closer look at water systems where testing identified excessive lead.
“It has caused a sort of shock wave through the drinking water industry generally,” said Jim Taft, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. States are looking at water systems’ performance and oversight, he said, “to make sure we’re not missing something.”
High lead in systems large, small
At a trailer home at the Maple Ridge Mobile Home Park in Corinna, Maine, Christi Woodruff recalls the notice hung on her door last year alerting her to potential lead contamination in the neighborhood.
A mom with an 8-year-old daughter, Woodruff initially planned to get her water tested. But, she shrugged it off after the park's landlord told her testing was unnecessary. "The manager said not to worry because it was only certain trailers ... He didn't think my trailer was one of them," she said.
Property manager Randy Dixon blamed tap water from a single old trailer with lead-soldered copper pipes for causing the park's water to fail the EPA's testing. He then told a USA TODAY NETWORK reporter to stop interviewing residents.
The analysis of EPA's data show the Maine park is among almost 2,000 water systems flagged for having an "action level exceedance" for lead during 2012 through 2015. That generally means more than 10% of tap water samples taken during a testing period showed lead contamination above 15 ppb.
If you're living in a home with a lead service line and received a notice about possible lead contamination, "it's a good idea to get your water tested," said Beauvais, the EPA water office official.
Most of the water systems that failed the EPA's lead standard serve anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand people each, often running their lines to homes in rural communities, or managing water for individual schools or businesses in remote areas.
In Lake Mills, Wisc., about 50 miles west of Milwaukee, EPA records show the utility serving water to 5,300 people failed lead tests in 2013, 2014 and again in 2015 with some readings several times the federal limit.
Paul Hermanson, director of Public Works, said Lake Mills sent fliers with water bills since 2010 urging residents in older homes to run their water 15 to 30 seconds before using it. The idea behind not using the first water out of the tap is to avoid drinking water that's been touching the old pipes and has the greatest risk of containing lead. “I don’t know that there’s a good solution to it other than running the water,” he said.
Some of the older homes in the growing bedroom community of Firestone, Colo., about 30 miles north of Denver, tested for excessive lead four times since 2014, records show. Town officials said they have repeatedly notified their 9,500 water customers of potentially harmful lead levels and distributed information explaining how to reduce risk. “The fact that they haven’t fixed this, that’s annoying,” said resident Heath Gaston.
The USA TODAY NETWORK analysis showed three of every four water systems that exceeded the lead standard from 2012 to 2015 served 500 people or less. They often lack the resources and staff expertise of larger systems. "Some of these small systems don't even have a full-time operator," said Taft, of the state water regulators association. They may rely on one person, responsible for several systems, he said. In the case of schools, the same staff that does building maintenance may be managing the water system.
But nearly 70 of the systems with excessive lead findings during the past four years each provide water to at least 10,000 people. They include:
Passaic Valley Water Commission, New Jersey: More than 315,000 people are served by the water system in the industrialized area of northern New Jersey with a history of other pollution crises. It failed to meet EPA’s lead standards during two testing periods last year and one in 2012. Commission officials said a $135 million construction project is underway to improve corrosion control. The utility officials also are publicly encouraging more people to participate in its lead-testing program.
New Bedford, Mass.: This municipal water system, which serves about 95,000 in a seaport city about an hour south of Boston, has been cited for excessive lead in 2014 and early 2015, EPA data show. Ron Labelle, the city’s public infrastructure commissioner, said the area’s housing is among the oldest in the Northeast and some still have lead service lines. A consultant has helped improve the system’s anti-corrosion treatments, he said, and the city passed its most recent testing in December. Additional testing will be done this spring.
Bangor Water District, Maine: More than 28,000 people receive water from this system, which exceeded EPA’s lead standards three times in 2012 and 2013. Operators tweaked chemicals used in its corrosion control program, and have been in compliance since.
Failure to notify people
When testing does reveal high lead levels, the USA TODAY NETWORK found many people were not warned as required. Of the 180 cited for failing to notify the public, almost half were cited more than once, records show.
In Ohio, in the past year, seven water systems serving a combined 8,800 customers failed to notify residents of potential lead contamination within 60 days as required.
Tests found excessive lead last summer at homes in the village of Sebring. The water system didn’t alert customers until January, after Flint started making national headlines. The Ohio EPA placed two employees on leave while investigating. State records show six other Ohio water systems also did not provide timely warnings to residents after failing lead tests. The systems supply water to mobile home parks, a subdivision, an arboretum and a church and its day care.
In Arizona, several water systems that found unsafe amounts of lead in drinking water samples taken several years ago failed to act until February, after the USA TODAY NETWORK began requesting data about lead levels in drinking water.
The principal at a boarding school near the Navajo Reservation was unaware until February that water from a faucet in a church at the property tested high for lead in 2013. Operators of a small water utility near the Mexico border and a small community system in eastern Arizona both had high lead test results in 2013. One said he didn’t know any action was needed. The other conceded the lack of action was an oversight.
Misael Cabrera, director Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, acknowledged lapses in following up with some water systems. Cabrera said he’s since asked all water providers for high lead levels to notify their customers. His department also is creating a system to better track compliance.
Without strong action by regulators, problems can fester, especially in small systems with limited resources.
In southeastern Oklahoma’s Latimer County, a rural water system serving about 1,500 people has had excessive lead levels during seven testing periods since 2013, EPA data show. The Latimer County Rural Water District #2 failed more tests in the past three years than any water system in the country.
Little has been done to fix the problem. The Latimer #2 district points its finger at its water supplier, and the supplier blames homeowners for not replacing bad plumbing.
“There’s nothing we can do,” said Linda Petty, office manager for the Latimer #2 district, which doesn’t treat its own water. Latimer buys its water from the nearby Sardis Lake Water Authority. “We’re at their mercy,” she said.
“The water that we have coming out of the lake does not have lead in it,” said Willie Williams, the Sardis Lake system’s operator. “They have some houses in their system that have horrendous plumbing. There’s not a single thing Latimer #2 can do about it and not a single thing I can do about it.”
Customers received notices of the lead issue in their bills, the water system and residents said. County officials say they have not gotten calls from concerned residents.
“I haven’t heard anybody saying anything about it,” said John Medders, a county commissioner whose home is on the system. He recalled getting a notice in the fall. “Most of the time I just throw mine in the trash. I don’t pay much mind to it.”
Water regulators at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality said they now plan to meet with both water systems and send state engineers to Latimer and 18 other water systems that don’t comply with lead-contamination limits.
“The Flint, Michigan, situation has really opened our eyes to what’s going on,” said Patty Thompson, engineering manager for the department’s public water supply group.
Contributing: Mark Alesia, The Indianapolis Star; Jessie Balmert, The (Newark, Ohio) Advocate; Patricia Borns, The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press; Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY; Eric Litke, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin; Jacy Marmaduke, Fort Collins Coloradoan; Caitlin McGlade, The Arizona Republic; Marty Schladen, The El Paso Times; Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press; Laura Ungar, USA TODAY; Jim Waymer, Florida Today; and Russell Zimmer, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press.