Unhealthy amounts of lead found in water at multiple San Antonio ISD schools

An updated rule with the EPA will require elementary schools and childcare facilities to begin testing for lead and copper in 2024.

Starting in January, schools in the San Antonio area and nationwide will test their water for lead and copper.

It’s part of the Environment Protection Agency’s new rule aimed at reducing amounts of those harmful metals in drinking water.

As things stand now, there are no state or federal regulations on testing; however, Texas does offer a voluntary testing program for schools and childcare facilities.

SAISD lead testing

“You place your sample. And you just simply collect your first sample,” Dr. Melissa Hill said, placing a container beneath a stream of water at the San Antonio ISD Summit Building.

Collecting the water from the fountain or other fixtures for the testing process is easy.

“We had prepackaged labels (and) envelopes, and you would just pack it in here and send it off to the lab. Simple as that,” Hill explained.

Hill — a professional geologist and the assistant director of environmental health and safety with SAISD — sat with us to discuss the district’s lead testing process and how it works in conjunction with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“We looked at cafeterias, gyms... where they’re preparing food, anywhere where water would be used,” Hill said.

According to public data from TCEQ’s Lead Testing in Schools and Child Care Program, SAISD tested places like water fountains, kitchen faucets, refrigerators, outdoor spigots and classroom faucets.

“We sampled almost 3000 different samples that we had tested for lead,” Hill said. “And of those, 96% of them came back below the threshold of 15 parts per billion.”

That means, of the samples collected, 4% exceed the EPA’s threshold of 15 parts per billion (ppb) requiring action to be taken.

This data shows that some are significantly above that threshold.

The data embedded below is narrowed down to just the drinking fountains.

Fifty-six drinking fountains in Bexar County schools tested over the EPA threshold on the first round of testing. Of those, 49 were at SAISD schools.

Highland Park Elementary had two water fountains in its cafeteria test extremely high, one at 685.7 ppb and the other at 277.2 ppb.

That’s 45 and 18 times the “actionable” limit set by the EPA.

“This one has been permanently removed. It’s no longer there. The other one, we removed it and then we put another one, but it’s closed off,” Hill said, showing us photos of those water fountains.

Highland Park Elementary had the top two highest counts among Bexar County Schools. The following schools round out the top five highest lead counts:

  • Smith Elementary — a water fountain tested 124.2 ppb
  • Mark Twain Dual Language Academy — a water fountain tested 114 ppb
  • Pershing Elementary — a water fountain tested 107.5 ppb

SAISD sent letters to parents at school campuses where excessive amounts of lead were found. In the letters, the district said lead exposure can come from a variety of places and told parents they could have a pediatrician test their children for lead.

While the district is taking mitigation efforts like closing off access to the fountains, some parents say they are still concerned.

“I’m shocked. That’s really surprising and a little upsetting,” Erica Alvarado, an SAISD parent said. “I didn’t even know that lead in the water was a concern that I should have.”

“I was definitely very disappointed and very concerned because, I mean, I know the effects of lead and, you know, how they can be long-lasting,” David Garza, another SAISD parent explained.

Ingesting lead can be harmful, especially to young children and reproductive-aged women.

The EPA lists behavior and learning problems, slowed growth, hearing problems, lower IQ, and hyperactivity as possible lead exposure results.

The American Academy of Pediatrics states no amount of lead is acceptable for school-aged children and “we should ensure water fountains in school do not exceed water lead concentrations of more than 1 part per billion.”

Diana Lopez, an SAISD parent who works in environmental advocacy, says it’s important the district figures out where the lead is coming from.

“It is important to be able to understand where their sources are coming from and to understand that if it is part of the infrastructure of the schools,” Lopez said.

“Based on the data that we’ve collected so far, it could be strictly from the fixtures, could be lead soldering,” Dr. Hill said when asked if any of the schools in the district had a lead service line.

The district is currently in the evaluation stage of TCEQ’s voluntary testing program.

It’s waiting for analysis of additional tests to see what concrete solutions are needed to ensure students have safe drinking water.

“At least we know we’re doing something about it. We’re mitigating,” Hill said.

TCEQ’s Lead Testing in Schools and Child Care (LTSCC) Program

Statewide, Bexar County has the highest participation in collecting water samples to be tested as a part of this program.

According to a representative with TCEQ, statewide “there are currently over 700 schools from 75 districts and an additional 750+ child care facilities participating in this voluntary program.”

Of those samples collected, Bexar County accounts for about 30% of the total.

Representatives with TCEQ’s LTSCC program are contacting all eligible schools and childcare facilities by phone and email to let them know about the program.

An EPA grant funds the program and is free for Texas public schools and licensed childcare facilities. In addition to the testing, “systems complete multiple steps including: completing training to learn about the sources and health effects of lead; sharing program participation with the community; creating a sampling plan by identifying all water outlets in their facility; completing sample collector training; and, receiving a sample kit, and collecting and shipping samples for analysis to an accredited laboratory. The laboratory reports results to the facility along with an action plan for locations where lead was detected. Schools and child care facilities then also receive additional follow-up and support from the program,” according to a statement from a TCEQ representative.

See data from all Bexar County participating facilities below:

Lead regulations

While there are currently no federal or state regulations on testing for lead in water at schools or childcare facilities, there are requirements set in place by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) has reduced the maximum allowable lead content — that is, content that is considered “lead-free” — to be a weighted average of 0.25% calculated across the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures and 0.2 percent for solder and flux,” according to the EPA’s website.

The EPA goes on to explain that lead pipes are much more common in structures built prior to 1986.

According to the SAISD website, Highland Park Elementary was built in 1914, and Pershing Elementary opened at its current site in 1959.

Looking at several other districts, Cambridge Elementary with Alamo Heights was built in 1912.

For buildings without lead service lines, the EPA states “the most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and plumbing with lead solder.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sets the action level of lead in a child’s blood at 3.5 micrograms per deciliter.

“The Federal Advisory Committee, called the Lead Exposure and Prevention Advisory Committee (LEPAC), unanimously voted on May 14, 2021, in favor of recommending that the CDC update the reference value to 3.5 μg/dL based on these NHANES data,” the CDC website states.

It goes on to state that children are more likely to be exposed to lead if they spend time in a building built before 1978 and encourages those children to be tested.

That test can be done by taking blood from the finger, heel, or arm and testing for lead at your child’s doctor’s office.

Other districts in our area

In the KSAT 12 News investigation, we contacted 23 school districts in nine counties starting on Sept. 21st.

SAISD was the only district to grant an in-person interview.

Below is a list of the other districts we contacted and their responses or lack thereof.

  • Floresville ISD - “I apologize for the late response. Thank you for taking our district into consideration for this project; however, Floresville ISD does not have any campuses or facilities with lead-plumbing, so this is not a problem we are facing.”
  • Hondo ISD - No response.
  • Alamo Heights ISD - “Alamo Heights ISD works to maintain all safety requirements of the state. As the state does not require lead testing, Alamo Heights ISD does not currently conduct independent testing of the water system. We do not wish to participate or be interviewed.”
  • Schertz/Cibolo/Universal City ISD - “We respectfully decline participation in this interview.”
  • Judson ISD - No response.
  • Boerne ISD - No response.
  • North East ISD - “We do not have lead piping in our building water distribution systems … the piping is either copper, PVC, or galvanized-steel.”
  • Poth ISD - No response.
  • Southwest ISD - “As for your request, at this time, we are going to decline your interview offer. But for your records, the district adheres to the policies, procedures, and standards set forth by TCEQ. Our test results consistently demonstrate our compliance with TCEQ standards, and we remain committed to upholding these standards to safeguard the safety and well-being of our students and staff.”
  • New Braunfels ISD - No response.
  • Harlandale ISD - “Our Executive Director of Operations is checking on this as soon as I hear back from him I will let you know. I am sorry for the delayed response.” This response was sent on November 13, and no update has been given at the time of this article’s publishing.
  • East Central ISD - No response.
  • South San Antonio ISD - No response.
  • Medina Valley ISD - No response.
  • Comal ISD - No response.
  • Edgewood ISD - No response; however, according to TCEQ’s data, the district is participating in the LTSCC program and has found lead in some of its tested water fixtures.
  • Uvalde CISD - “I hope this email finds you well. Thank you for considering our district to participate in this project. However, due to our current schedules and commitments, we regret to inform you that we cannot participate at this time. Once again, we appreciate your invitation and hope that we can collaborate on future projects. Thank you again for your consideration.”
  • Medina ISD - No response.
  • Dilley ISD - “At this time, Dilley ISD has no comment concerning this matter.”

Responses from Somerset ISD and Northside ISD are attached in the document below:

About the Authors:

Leigh Waldman is a news reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.