Lead found in drinking water of several San Antonio ISD campuses, officials say

District working with TCEQ for testing; students, staff not exposed

SAN ANTONIO – Lead has been found in the drinking water of several San Antonio ISD campuses, according to district officials.

SAISD Director Of Operations Ahmad Shariff said all drinking spouts had been shut off since COVID-19 precautions were set two years ago, so no student or staff member has been exposed.

“We’re taking proactive measures to ensure that our water quality is on spot,” Shariff said.

The district is working with The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in a program called Voluntary Lead Testing in School and Child Care Drinking Water.

“They notified many, many school districts, so it’s not just us,” Shariff said.

Through the program, SAISD has sent water samples to TCEQ. Results for 28 campuses have come back, and lead was found in 11 campuses --sometimes in one or two water outlets.

SAISD said parents had been notified if their child’s campus had tested positive for lead in the water.

“We’re doing what we did before. We opened those back up. We wanted to make sure that we get all of those tested,” Shariff said.

Texas A&M San Antonio biology professor Davida Smyth said lead can seep into the water because older pipes are made of lead, and the fountains went unused for a long time.

“If it’s stagnant, it’s been sitting there for a long time. That obviously gives it more time ... to accumulate in the water,” Smyth said. “And if there’s any damage to the pipes themselves -- so if they’re old lead pipes, they will be broken or damaged, that can help the like get into the water.”

Smyth said she was impressed that SAISD took advantage of the state-funded program.

“It’s very responsible of the district to test. That’s very good. I’m actually very happy with that,” Smyth said.

Southside ISD and Northside ISD told KSAT they flush their fountains for 30 minutes every month to avoid lead accumulation.

TCEQ Responses

TCEQ answered KSAT’s lead-related questions through email with the following responses:

What level of lead in water can cause illness or death?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule specifies using a lead concentration of 15 micrograms per liter (µg/L) as an action level. This action level precipitates actions to decrease lead levels in water. In general, limits on lead concentrations in water are designed to protect people, especially children, from having elevated blood lead levels. An elevated blood lead level is designated as greater than 3.5 micrograms per deciliter of blood (µg/dL) by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it is not based on health effects, but rather on the blood lead level that is higher than what is found in 97.5% of the population of U.S. children. The amount of lead that a person gets in their body from water depends not just on the concentration of lead in the water, but how much of that water they drink, how often, how old they are, their nutritional status, and other factors. Because of that, judgements about health impacts from lead are based on a person’s blood lead level, rather than water concentrations. Additional information about health impacts of lead can be obtained from the Department of State Health Services’ Blood Lead Surveillance Branch.

How do you know/measure when water is safe?

If customers receive their water from a regulated community water system: EPA requires all community water systems to prepare and deliver an annual water quality report called a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) for their customers. Contact the water utility to receive a copy of their latest report. TCEQ performs regulatory oversight of public water systems and determines compliance with actions required by rule for the protection of public health.

If a customer’s water comes from a household well or other private water supply: check with the local health department, nearby water utilities that use groundwater, or the local groundwater conservation district for information on contaminants of concern in the area.

Homes may have internal plumbing materials containing lead. Since we cannot see, taste, or smell lead dissolved in water, testing is the only sure way of telling whether there are harmful quantities of lead in the drinking water. The TCEQ maintains a list of accredited laboratories that can analyze for lead and other contaminants in drinking water and other media: https://www.tceq.texas.gov/agency/qa/env_lab_accreditation.html.

The EPA also has a webpage with information about lead in drinking water: https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/basic-information-about-lead-drinking-water#findout.

How do you measure lead in water?

TCEQ’s voluntary Lead Testing in School and Childcare (LTSCC) program includes sample collection training which educates participants on sampling in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) 3Ts- Training, Testing, and Taking Action program. This directs a first draw sample to be collected in a 250 mL sample bottle after the outlet has been unused, between 8 and 18 hours, and a second sample being collected after a 30 second flush. All samples are analyzed at a state accredited drinking water laboratory using methods that are required by EPA.

How does lead accumulate in pipes after being stagnant?

Lead is soluble in water and may leech or dissolve into the water over time when water remains stagnant in the pipes or fixtures or when water has corrosive properties.

Can lead accumulation be prevented and how?

Lead accumulation can be reduced by using lead free plumbing materials or replacing plumbing materials that may contain lead. Lead accumulation can be reduced by “flushing”, i.e. running the water and replacing stagnant water with fresh water.

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About the Authors:

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.