Texas House should move bill to test lead levels in school water

May 9th, 2017

Texas House should move bill to test lead levels in school water
Special to the Star-Telegram

In 2014, the city of Flint, Mich., switched its water source to the Flint River, leading to a massive public health crisis owing to increased levels of lead in the blood of children.

Two years later and 1,200 miles away, school administrators in the Fort Worth Independent School District discovered high levels of lead in many of their schools after voluntary testing of water from drinking fountains.

Wanting to avoid a crisis like the one in Flint, state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, began to craft legislation similar to a bill that passed in New York last year — one that brought to light that 14 percent of schools in that state had high levels of lead in their water.

Last week, Collier’s bill passed unanimously out of the House Public Education Committee. House Bill 2395 aims to address the problem of safe drinking water for schoolchildren across Texas.

The bill has made significant progress, but time is growing short for it to be considered by the House and moved on to the Senate for passage.

The current legislative session ends May 29.

The House Calendars Committee must set a schedule so that HB 2395 can be debated on the floor of the House no later than next Thursday, or it will miss crucial end-of-session deadlines.

The bill provides for testing for levels of lead in Texas’ 1,200 school districts and offers concrete guidance to districts on how to respond if their tests come back positive.

It also includes a modest allocation in the House budget to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to create a database and hire staff for implementation of the testing program.

We know exposure to high levels of lead can alter brain development and delay growth in children, who are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults.

High levels of lead also interferes with children’s ability to use vitamin D and iron, and it increases their chances of developing high blood pressure as adults.

We know even low levels of lead can cause irreversible harm to our children.

Yet few school districts are voluntarily testing for lead contamination, because they lack the money or other necessary resources.

Texas has no uniform standards or requirements for how water in public schools is tested for lead.

Research using data from the Environmental Protection Agency last year found roughly 2,000 water systems supplying water to 6 million people across the country contain excessive levels of lead.

But how can we protect our children if we don’t know which ones are at risk? How do we fix a problem if we don’t know where it lies?

Without a statewide database and mandatory testing, we have no idea which of our schools and districts are at risk.

HB 2395 will provide information we currently lack, so we can address our most worrisome areas before we reach public health crisis levels.

Critics of this bill say we should rip out all our old pipes and start over.

That’s a pipe dream, literally, given the current restraints on our school budgets.

We do know a large portion of our schools were built before 1986, when the federal government banned pipes containing more than 8 percent lead.

Under HB 2395, we will be able to collect crucial data and, if necessary, return to the Legislature next session to ask for additional funding if extensive remediation is necessary in our schools.

Our Legislature can learn from the Flint crisis and prevent potentially life-threatening health risks.

Passing this bill is a sign that we acknowledge the potential threats, and that we are invested in solutions that keep our children safe.

Elizabeth Doyel is executive director of the Texas League of Conservation Voters.