FORT WORTH, Texas - Three months after Fort Worth ISD announced it would be replacing hundreds of old drinking fountains due to high levels of lead found in school drinking water, a FOX 4 Investigation has uncovered that the problem is more widespread and will cost more money to fix than first believed.
There is no federal, state or local mandate requiring schools to test their drinking water. Fort Worth ISD voluntarily began testing a few schools in June after the lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan made national headlines.
“We did it because the national conversation about lead put a lot of questions in people's minds,” said Fort Worth ISD spokesperson Clint Bond. “It was the right thing for us to do.”
After discovering high levels of lead at a small sample of schools, the district decided to expand testing to all 127 schools. The district publicized its efforts for the first time on August 2.
Over the summer, workers started tearing out old water fountains which were believed to be the primary source of the lead contamination. In some cases, replacing old water fountains worked, but new lab results released in October show that in many cases, it did not.
In the meantime, the district has shut down all water fountains, sinks and water lines with high lead levels. All students and staff have access to clean drinking water, whether it’s from a new fountain or a temporary water stand put in place until a permanent fix is made.
Between June 14 and October 12, 2016, the district tested 1,908 water samples from 127 schools. The district continues to receive new results on a rolling basis. (The most updated reports can be found here. FOX 4 has created a guide on how to interpret the lab results at the end of this story.)
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends no more than 20 parts per billion of lead in water samples for schools. Fort Worth ISD is using a more restrictive measure of 15 parts per billion, the same threshold the City of Fort Worth uses when testing its water supply.
Here are the results of a FOX 4 analysis of an October 12th lab report, which includes data from every single water sample tested so far.
Out of 127 schools:
- Sixty-seven schools had all of their water samples come back below 15 parts per billion. The district cleared those schools as safe.
- Sixty schools, nearly half, had one or more water samples with lead levels above 15 parts per billion.
- As of October 12th, 26 of those 60 schools have dropped to safe levels after the district took steps to fix the problem, such as flushing out stagnant water and installing new fountains.
- That leaves 34 schools where the district continued to find high levels of lead, sometimes in water lines that connect to drinking fountains and kitchen sinks.
“This is not a quick fix,” said Bond. “If we put on a brand new water fountain and we're still getting a 45 or 100 [parts per billion] reading, then we know we have a water line problem.
Replacing old pipes will get expensive, according to the district. It would require knocking down walls and digging up pipes.
One of the schools most affected is Paschal High School. Five water lines tested above the limit with the highest sample at 235 parts per billion, or more than 15 times the limit. The district installed new fountains on those water lines.
In some cases, new fountains are able to stem the flow of water enough to reduce the concentration of lead washing out of an old pipe. However, at Paschal HS, two new fountains still tested high, meaning the water lines will have to be replaced.
Paschal High School parent David Steed has a freshman daughter. Steed didn’t know about the testing or unsafe levels detected until FOX 4 told him in early October. He expressed concern about what his child may have been exposed to before the problem was discovered.
“If she needs to drink water from school, you'd expect it not to be tainted with lead, right?” Steed said. “What [the district is] doing is fixing a problem that's been there for who knows how long.”
It is impossible to know how long the water has been contaminated, since it’s never been tested before.
Diana Ramos attended Paschal High herself and now has two children attending the school. Ramos also didn’t know about the problem until she was informed by FOX 4.
“What are they doing to clear it up and why?” Ramos asked.
Ramos told FOX 4 she is planning to take her children to get their blood levels tested for lead exposure.
UT Arlington chemistry professor Dr. Kevin Schug said blood testing is a simple way for parents to find out if their child has been exposed to unsafe levels of lead.
Dr. Schug is not involved with testing the water at Fort Worth ISD schools.
“The amount of lead in the water is certainly one thing to be concerned about, but the amount of lead in the child is obviously the main problem,” Dr. Schug said.
According to the professor, lead exposure has a far greater impact on children because they are still developing mentally and physically.
“For children, [lead exposure] can be a range of problems,” Dr. Schug said. “It can lead to an increase in learning deficiencies, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, affecting the central nervous system, even the growth of the child.”
Pediatricians and primary care doctors can order the blood test and interpret results, according to Fort Worth ISD.
The district has implemented a daily flushing program recommended by the Fort Worth water department. Custodial and kitchen staff start each day by running fresh water through the pipes, kitchen faucets and water fountains to flush out stagnant water sitting in the pipes and fixtures overnight. This process helps maintain low lead level readings.
Fort Worth ISD has spent close to $800,000 budgeted this year for lead testing, replacing fountains and putting in temporary water stands where fountains once stood.
“That [$800,000] doesn't account for taking the walls apart, taking out lines, putting in new lines,” said Bond.
Zeb Pent represents the district watchdog group Stand for Fort Worth. Pent was shocked when he heard about the lead results and urges accountability by the district.
“More important than stewardship of money is stewardship of children,” Pent said. “We have to make sure our children are safe.”
As local and state officials examine new test results each week and continue sampling problematic sites, Fort Worth ISD is trying to figure out a long-term solution.
“The cost of doing some of this stuff, we won't be able to handle right now,” Bond said.
Bond said the school board may need to approve more funding, and depending on the cost, it could even become a bond issue down the road.
The district emphasizes that while a permanent solution is developed, students are not currently exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water and have access to clean drinking water at all times.
FOX 4 Step-by-Step Guide to Reading FWISD Water Test Results
Note: Results may be easier to read on a desktop or laptop, but the data is viewable on mobile.
- Click on the link above to access the district’s landing page.
- Halfway down the page, there is a link to updated test results. The link is updated as new results come in on a rolling basis.
- Schools are listed alphabetically.
- The three most important columns are: “Submitted,” “Location,” and “Results”
- “Submitted” is the date the water sample was submitted.
- “Location” is where in the school the sample was taken from.
- Each location has a unique ID number.
- e.g. “153-1-H” is the first sample at A.M. Pate Elementary School. “153” is the school number, “1” is the sample site, and “H” is the type of water fixture the sample came from.
- Drinking fountains are assigned a letter based on the model of the fountain. All single letters, except “P,” represent old water fountains.
- “Kit” represents a water source in a kitchen.
- “WL” represents a water line (attached to a fountain or sink).
- “P” represents a new fountain the district has installed since the start of testing.
- “Results” show the concentration of lead found in the water sample.
- The results are shown in “ug/L” or micrograms per liter. One microgram per liter is the equivalent of one part per billion.
- This column is where you look for any results above 15 parts per billion, the district’s safety level.
- According to the district, earlier results may have been skewed by human error, because district employees were still being trained by the city on how to collect water samples. This is important to note, because some earlier results may have skewed too high or too low due to human error.
- By comparing the three columns, you can see how new results compared to the original results and whether water line samples and new fountains have shown higher or lower lead samples. It is important to remember that results are coming in on a rolling basis and the status of each school is subject to change at any time.
Fort Worth ISD encourages parents with questions or concerns to call 817-814-2070 or email email@example.com.
This investigation started as tip from the public. If you would like submit a tip or story idea, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- City of Fort Worth Department
- Tarrant County Public Health
- Department of State Health Services
- Environmental Protection Agency
- Centers for Disease Control