State health officials found no significant lead levels in the drinking water of a dozen of Louisiana’s oldest public school buildings, the state’s health chief told The Advocate Monday.
Some of the tests found some lead, but the results were far below the 15 parts per billion that would have initiated action on the part of state authorities. A heavy metal, lead has been linked to brain and nervous problems particularly in children.
“I would have predicted we would find more lead,” said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state’s health officer.
He suspects many schools, particularly the older ones built when lead pipes and fixtures were common, may have a problem. All 12 elementary schools that tested in the pilot program were constructed prior to 1986.
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“Many Louisiana communities have water systems with aging infrastructure as well as older homes. Both situations make it more likely to find lead in water due to old plumbing,” Guidry said. “When we designed this program, we fully expected to find some instance of elevated lead because we purposefully selected schools that had older pipes and plumbing. These results are extremely encouraging.”
Guidry cautioned that a dozen test results aren’t enough to make sweeping statements.
Though ordered by the Legislature to conduct the tests, Guidry said the possibility of children drinking water with high levels of lead and other dangerous metals keeps him up at night.
The state is tasked with testing water systems, that is, ensuring that the water gets from the pump to the customer is free of contaminants. At that point, the owner of the building is responsible for ensuring the water that comes out of the tap is safe.
School systems are charged with testing the drinking water in their public elementary, middle and high schools, Guidry said.
The issue is getting over the money hurdle, said Janet Pope, director of Louisiana School Board Association. Testing drinking water and how to go about doing it has been a hot topic among state school administrators.
The cost of performing the tests amounts to another unfunded mandate for schools that already are strapped for money, Pope said. “But when it comes to the health of children, it is a priority," she said.
Tests earlier this year found public schools in St. Joseph had dangerous levels of lead in drinking and cooking water when the doors opened for classes. The schools flushed the lines and provided bottled water until water fountains, which had lead fixtures, were replaced.
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The Louisiana Department of Health was ordered by the Legislature to conduct the tests at public schools as part of a pilot program to keep lawmakers abreast of the growing problem. A final report will be delivered directly to the Legislature before the end of the year.
The key sponsor of Act 632 was state Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe. He had wanted to test every public school but couldn’t get enough support because of the cost. Instead, lawmakers agreed to test a dozen schools a year for three years.
“I’m glad no lead was found. But I don’t want us to get lulled into a false sense of security,” Hunter said Monday. “I would be hopelessly naïve to say we have crumbling roads and bridges but our drinking water infrastructure is fine.”
Almost 13 million students nationwide were attending schools that found elevated levels of lead in 2017, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office survey. But only about 43 percent of the school districts did any testing.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week released details on a $20 million of grants to assist schools that voluntarily test for lead. The EPA is holding a webinar on Thursday to help local school officials apply for a portion of the Lead Testing in School and Child Care Program Drinking Water Grant.
These are the schools where drinking water was tested. Click on the links to see the results of the individual school tests:
• Bernard Terrace Elementary School, Baton Rouge
• Barkdull Faulk Elementary School, Monroe
• Bayou Blue Elementary School, Houma
• Cherokee Elementary School, Alexandria
• Covington Elementary School, Covington
• Creswell Elementary School, Shreveport
• Drew Elementary School, West Monroe
• Dwight D. Eisenhower Academy of Global Studies, New Orleans
• Harahan Elementary School, Harahan
• Loranger Elementary School, Loranger
• Prairie Elementary School, Lafayette
• Prien Lake Elementary School, Lake Charles