Recent Survey Shows Many Florida Schools Not Testing the Safety of Drinking Water
Fight for Zero asked sixty-seven school districts and forty-two public colleges and universities across Florida for the results of their most recent water safety tests. Some of the responses were troubling.
Thirty-four school districts redirected the request to local municipalities because those districts do not test the safety of the water they provide to students, faculty, and staff.
Twenty-five school districts and colleges provided test results for coliform/E Coli. (According to the EPA, coliform/E Coli is particularly harmful to children and could cause permanent kidney damage.) And there are problems. For example, pond water at North Florida Community College tested positive for dangerously high levels for E. Coli.
A few Florida schools are still on well water, which is not always treated or tested by county or municipal water systems because, in many instances, federal law does not mandate the testing of wells.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, for children, there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. Despite national media attention on water-born lead poisoning of children in Flint, Michigan and specific instances of drinking water lead contamination in Florida schools (Hillsborough; Polk; Okaloosa; Monroe, and; DeSoto Counties) only twenty-two schools out of the one-hundred-nine school districts or public colleges and universities in Florida tested for lead in drinking water is given to students.
Lead-tainted drinking water isn’t the only danger. There are contaminants of emerging concern that may cause potential long-term risk to human health or the environment, such as poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS). PFAS is commonly used in fire-fighting foams. Out of six colleges that have fire training facilities on campus, only one, Chipola College, tested for the PFAS on January 31, 2019, and reported no detection.
According to the EPA, polluted groundwater can reach drinking water systems and pose serious public health threats, particularly to children, adolescents, and young adults.
Preventative steps, however, are cost-effective. For instance, in 2019, the Leon County School District did a water-filter-installation cost analysis for all of their school's drinking fountains and bubblers. The study estimated the cost to ensure the safety of drinking water for children was only $122,625 against the District’s annual budget of $263,600,197.
Some Florida school districts don’t appear to be worried about the safety of drinking water, though. The School District of Okeechobee County hasn’t tested in decades. Their most recent drinking water report was done in 1991. Out of the one-hundred-nine requests made by Fight for Zero on February 27, 2019, Broward County School District, Citrus County School District, and Fort Myers Technical College failed even to respond as required by Florida’s Public Records Act.
Here are all the test results sent from each school district, college, and university.
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Requiring Schools to Install Filters for Drinking Water
A 2019 bill was introduced in Tallahassee called Drinking Water in Public Schools that would have required each school district to install filters. House Bill 545 was withdrawn from consideration five months after it was filed and didn't pass the PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee. This bill would have additional required schools to post certain signage on certain water sources & to publish specified information on the school district's website.
A similar bill was filed in 2018 that would have required each school district to filter drinking water at each source for any school built before 1986. SB66 also included that the filter must meet specified standards to reduce lead at each school water source. In the bill, the legislators acknowledged that lead is a common hazardous contaminant found in the plumbing systems of older homes, businesses, and schools. They also recognize that lead can enter tap water through the corrosion of aging plumbing materials.
According to the Department of Education, there are approximately 1,751 schools currently in operation that were built prior to 1987.
Nationwide, an estimated 43 percent of school districts, serving 35 million students, tested for lead in school drinking water in 2016 or 2017, according to GAO's nationwide survey of school districts. An estimated 41 percent of school districts, serving 12 million students, had not tested for lead. GAO's survey showed that, among school districts that did test, an estimated 37 percent found elevated lead (lead at levels above their selected threshold for taking remedial action.). U.S. Government Accountability Office, Lead Testing of School Drinking Water Would Benefit from Improved Federal Guidance, https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-18-382
Florida Department of Education, State Requirements for Educational Facilities (2014), available at http://www.fldoe.org/core/fileparse.php/7738/urlt/srefrule14.pdf
Hillsborough County Public Schools, Water Testing FAQ, https://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/doc/2012/maintenance/resources/watertesting-faq/. The testing revealed 1.5 percent of fixtures required remediation. Florida Department of Health, Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County Applauds School District's Lead Testing Efforts, http://hillsborough.floridahealth.gov/newsroom/2018/08/lead-testing-efforts.html
Alachua County Schools recently began installing water filters at all schools in the district. The school district installed Omnipure K5615_KK filters that are NSF/ANSI-53 rated, with a maximum life of one year. The cost of such installation for all schools was $30,000, which compares to an estimated cost of $300,000 to test each school individually for lead contaminants. The Gainesville Sun, Alachua County schools install filters to remove lead (Oct. 15, 2018), https://www.gainesville.com/news/20181015/alachua-county-schools-install-filters-to-remove-lead
Polk County Schools, Water Quality Assessment, https://polkschoolsfl.com/leadinformationcenter/
United States Environmental Protection Agency, Understanding the Safe Drinking Water Act (June 2004), available at https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-04/documents/epa816f04030.pdf