Months after lead issue uncovered with SAISD, an environmental action group says problem is much worse

Starting in 2024, the EPA will require water systems to sample 20% of elementary schools and child care facilities every year

SAN ANTONIO – An environmental action group is calling out San Antonio ISD, saying its lead problem is worse than the district is making it out to be.

In November, KSAT Investigates highlighted the district’s participation in a voluntary lead testing program and some concerning findings.

Of the 3,000 samples collected, 4% exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold of 15 parts per billion (ppb), requiring action to be taken.

Data shows that some are significantly above that threshold.

“This more comprehensive testing now that SAISD is doing has uncovered a pervasive problem that we just didn’t know about,” Luke Metzger said.

Metzger is the executive director of Environment Texas, a non-profit advocate for clean air and water throughout Texas.

He said he was horrified when he first saw lead testing data from SAISD.

“We send our kids to school, you know, we expect them to be safe and to have clean water to drink and safe food to eat and to be protected,” Metzger said.

SAISD joined the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s voluntary lead testing program in 2022.

In November of that same year, water fountains at Highland Park Elementary tested at 685.7 ppb and 277.2 ppb.

Follow-up samples in February 2023 tested at 117 ppb and 64 ppb. Both of those readings are still well over the EPA’s actionable limit.

Three other schools also had water fountains that tested remarkably high:

  • 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

“It’s very scary that, you know, our kids can be exposed to lead levels that high,” Metzger said.

Metzger’s organization has monitored lead levels in school drinking water for years.

“What we found is that 71% of the schools who did do testing found lead in their drinking water,” Metzger said.

In the article published in 2017, Environment Texas wrote, “Only 1088 out of roughly 8000 Texas schools have tested and no public data is available for private schools.”

Forty-nine of San Antonio ISD’s drinking fountains tested over the EPA’s actionable limit in 2022. Meanwhile, SAISD says the fountains are closed while the district evaluates the source of the lead.

In an email sent to SAISD families, the district cited KSAT’s reporting and told families the water fountains had not been in use because of COVID restrictions, writing, “the stagnant nature of the outlets may have contributed to the lead readings.”

However, there’s no data to support that.

In KSAT’s previous sit-down with Dr. Melissa Hill, the assistant director of environmental health and safety with SAISD, we asked about these lead numbers and what could cause the elevated numbers.

Hill also cited the stagnant water in pipes during the pandemic when students couldn’t access the water fountains.

“Prior to COVID, could those lead numbers still have been there when kids were using this water fountain more regularly?” reporter Leigh Waldman asked.

“Well, I mean, anything’s possible. We don’t know. No one was testing then,” Hill said.

In 2024, the EPA is proposing a change to its actionable limit of lead found in drinking water.

On its website, the “EPA is also proposing to reduce the lead action level to 10 µg/L to require more water systems to take action sooner to control corrosion and provide public education.”

If that happens, more of SAISD’s campuses will have water fountains that are out of compliance, like at James Madison Elementary School, which had a drinking fountain test at 14.5 ppb. Also, S. H. Gates Elementary would have a water fountain out of compliance that tested just below, at 14 ppb.

With the new rule change, an additional 21 drinking fountains at SAISD schools would fall out of compliance and require the district to take action.

No safe levels of lead in water

“There’s no safe level of lead in drinking water,” Metzger said.

That sentiment is echoed on the EPA’s website: “There is no safe level of lead in drinking water. Exposure to lead in drinking water can cause serious health effects in all age groups, especially pregnant people, infants (both formula-fed and breastfed), and young children.”

Jerry Trevino, an environmental health administrator for San Antonio Metro Health, agrees.

Trevino points out that lead exposure is especially bad for young children.

“Their bodies are still growing and developing. Lead affects the nervous system and the brain,” Trevino said.

Their office works to educate families on what to look out for in their children.

“Some symptoms that have been reported are bellyache or belly pains, constipation, vomiting, and developmental delays as well,” Trevino said.

A study out of Wisconsin found that lead exposure had an impact on test scores for students in the fourth grade.

“There was a study in Wisconsin that looked at fourth graders taking reading and math tests and children with even low levels of lead in their blood and scored significantly worse on reading and math tests,” Metzger said.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison included students from the Milwaukee Public Schools and matched medical records of children who had been tested for lead exposure with their school records.

The study found “even after controlling for differences in test scores due to poverty, gender, English proficiency and other factors, children who had been exposed to lead scored lower on each subject of the fourth grade Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE), which measures student competence in reading, math and other basic subjects.”

Metro Health also encourages parents to incorporate Vitamin C and iron in their children’s diet to counter the lead.

When they have iron in their system, it’s going to uptake the iron, the blood will as opposed to the lead. Vitamin C also helps that absorption of iron as well,” Trevino said.

Parents should also contact their pediatrician’s office if they’re concerned about possible lead poisoning for their children. A simple blood test will show any elevated blood lead levels.

“There is no safe amount of lead in the blood. However, if it does get above 3.5 micrograms per deciliter — I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense to everybody. The doctor will know. But once it hits that level, it’s time to start eliminating the sources of lead,” Trevino explained.

Demanding further action be taken

Metzger is urging SAISD to do more than the minimum and eliminate any amount of lead in the water, as other districts in Texas have done.

“Back in 2017, AISD committed to that one part per billion standard and put it in filters on all of the water fountains,” Metzger said, referring to the Austin Independent School District. “Houston ISD, earlier this year, committed to spend about $6 million to put these hydration stations with filters in every school building in the district.”

While SAISD assures families in its email that it is taking a proactive approach, Metzger said parents must demand more.

“Their own data, you know, has uncovered, you know, a massive problem. And unfortunately, that means they’re going to need to take far greater action to protect our kids,” Metzger said.

Read more reporting on the KSAT Investigates page.

About the Authors

Leigh Waldman is an investigative 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.

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