Water Testing FAQ
Over the past year, there have been several news stories from other parts of the United States about high lead levels in school drinking water. Lead is not present in the water supplied to our schools, but lead can get into water as it moves through plumbing or fixtures that contain lead.
There are no requirements from our state or national governments to test for lead in schools. However, Hillsborough County Public Schools is taking this extra proactive step to test drinking water sources for our students and staff to ensure the water meets federal drinking water guidelines for schools established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Since last year, we have tested the water at more than 1,780 individual faucets, drinking fountains, and fixtures where water is likely to be used for drinking or cooking in 50 schools and district sites. We will continue testing the drinking water sources in our schools for lead until we have checked all 270 facilities in our district.
Each school may have dozens of faucets that require testing, and results take time to come back from the testing lab. The process will involve collecting and testing an estimated 10,000 water samples from schools all across our 1,000 square-mile county. Because of the scale of the project, we have set a goal of completing the testing by the end of December 2018 or sooner if our resources and capacity allow it.
Generally, our crews are focusing on testing our oldest schools first, however that order may vary based on work crew rotation or opportunities to be efficient by testing schools that are located nearby each other but may be of different ages. Please note that charter and private schools are independently managed and therefore are not part of this testing program.
Technicians from our district’s maintenance staff visit schools before staff and students arrive in the morning. They collect a water sample from every drinking fountain, kitchen food prep sink, or other fixture used for drinking water. These samples are sent to a lab for testing.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that lead levels over 20 parts per billion be corrected in schools. As a precaution, we will address issues where samples test at 15 parts per billion or higher. One part per billion is equivalent to a single drop of water in 55,000 gallons.
See how one of our district’s technicians gathers water samples on YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZKOjBk0GFw
Lead normally enters the drinking water from service lines, solder in copper piping, and brass faucet fixtures. These pipes and the solder used to connect them were often made with lead in them until recently, when laws changed to reduce the lead content in plumbing. Lead is not present in the drinking water that is sent to our schools from sources such as the City of Tampa.
We have hundreds of dedicated employees who work hard to maintain our schools, but our average campus age is 50 years old, and older pipes and fixtures do have a higher likelihood of adding lead to water.
Federal guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency recommend we take action to fix an issue when lead is measured at 20 parts per billion or higher. One part per billion is equivalent to a single drop of water in a swimming pool. Our district is using a stricter standard of 15 parts per billion. Any fixture found to have lead levels of 15 parts per billion or higher is immediately taken out of operation and is not used again until the problem is fixed.
Our protocol is to immediately shut down the affected faucet, correct the issue, and then retest the water to ensure the levels are in compliance before putting the faucet back into service. Options to correct an issue include replacing the fixture, adding water filters, or other plumbing projects. Alternative sources of water may be supplied to schools if needed.
Lead exposure over long periods of time can cause health risks. While water is not the primary source of lead exposure among children, it is still a priority in our district to ensure all our schools are meeting the recommendations set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The safety of our students and staff is our number one priority. For more information about the effects of lead exposure on children, visit the EPA’s website.
We are posting the results of the schools and sites tested so far and will add future results as we receive them on our district website at sdhc.k12.fl.us/watertesting. If a school has a fixture that tests over the 15 parts per billion level, we will notify parents and staff by email and text message.
Resources are available from the Environmental Protection Agency (https://www.epa.gov/lead) and the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County (813-307-8000). You may also talk to your child’s doctor.
According to the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, the risk is generally low from occasionally consuming water from these sources. If you have questions about your specific situation, talk to your health care provider about your concerns.
“Based on the levels found, someone would have to drink a lot of water for a long time to be at high risk of getting sick,” the Florida Department of Health said in a statement based on our district’s first round of nearly 1,800 tests that showed higher-than-acceptable lead levels in only 26 results.
“Washing hands wouldn’t cause an issue because the lead-contaminated water would need to be ingested continuously for a long period of time to do harm to the body. The risk of lead ingestion is low. However, if an individual is concerned, they should contact their health care provider to check the lead levels in their blood,” the Department of Health added.
If we find large-scale issues at any school, we will definitely look at options such as providing bottled water at a school. But test results showing higher than acceptable levels of lead have fortunately been very rare in our tests so far, showing up in just 1.5% of the tests we have run.
News headlines like “21 schools tested high for lead” are misleading—every school-wide system has been low in lead, even in our schools that are more than 100 years old. The issues we’ve found are at individual fixtures such as faucets and sinks. Out of 1,781 fixtures checked in our first round of testing, just 26 of them had higher than acceptable levels, and only five of those were drinking fountains.
The Environmental Protection Agency does not even recommend we take action when the results are so limited, but we are taking action anyway — pulling any fixture with an issue out of service until it can be replaced and re-tested.
“Based on the levels found, someone would have to drink a lot of water for a long time to be at high risk of getting sick,” the Florida Department of Health said in a statement. Based on guidance from the Florida Department of Health, we started with the schools that are oldest and at the highest risk of problems — and again, our testing so far has shown issues in just 1.5% of the fixtures we’ve tested.
Students and staff are always welcome to bring water from home if they would prefer to drink their own water.