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Should Water In Florida's Schools Be Tested For Lead?

A new report suggests Florida public schools and daycares could have dangerously high levels of lead in their drinking water.

Environment America, an advocacy group, argues in its report that there is no way of knowing how high those levels are. The report comes after national concern over the alarmingly high levels found in the drinking water of places like Flint, Michigan.

Unlike Michigan, Florida has not declared a State of Emergency, yet two researchers say these levels pose a tangible threat to children in public schools close to home.

Dr. Ronald Saff and Dr. Donald Axelrad conducted tests in two Tallahassee-area counties, Leon and Wakulla. Their results were startlingly consistent.

They tested water in 16 north Florida schools. All 16 had lead.

And they say these can't be the only two counties in the state with a problem.

"When children go to school, they should have their brains protected," Saff, an internist and allergist, said.

Students across the nation and in the state may be at risk of lowering their IQ’s, he said: "What we're finding is that they're being exposed to lead, which puts them at risk for developing ADHD, criminal behaviors (and) cognitive decline.”

Environment America’s report also indicates there could a problem in school districts statewide.

"Right now, we gave Florida a failing grade when it comes to the lead in drinking water,” the group’s Florida State Director Jennifer Rubiello said, “because current state law requires nothing to prevent children's drinking water from becoming laced with lead at school."

When, for instance, were taps in Alachua County schools last tested?

"There is no requirement to test for lead in the school's water," district spokeswoman Jackie Johnson said.

Gainesville Regional Utilities spokesman Patrick Donges said GRU is now developing a plan with the school board to test water in schools.

When testing is performed, it is not mandatory for Florida schools to test for lead beyond the Environmental Protection Agency's minimum regulations. The EPA's drinking water standard for lead is 15 parts per billion. This marker is known as an action level, when the the minimum requirement is surpassed and results must be reported.

Still, researchers question that standard.

"We'll call it a technology-based standard. It has nothing to do with public health, and it's widely misunderstood, so 15 (parts per billion) is not protective of human health," Donald Axelrad, a Florida A&M professor, said.

On their website, the American Academy of Pediatrics say there is no safe level.

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the origin of lead in drinking water is not in large water systems, such as Gainesville Regional Utilities. Rather, it’s from the water coursing through plumbing systems’ older pipes and fixtures.

"We've known lead is toxic for 2,000 years; why would we use lead pipes?" Axelrad said. "We don't have an inventory of lead water pipes in Florida. We certainly don't have a perfect feel of how many homes or schools have pre-1986 plumbing fittings full of lead."

“So we're just whistling past the graveyard,” he said.

Water isn't the only way children can be exposed to lead. It can be found in dust, gas, and in certain paints.

In 2012, the Center for Disease Control tested the blood of 3,605 children in Florida for lead. The CDC found elevated levels of lead in 381 children in Hillsborough County, 282 in Duval, 184 in Polk, and 73 children in Alachua County. All were among the top 10 counties with the most cases.

"It's the easiest of the problems,” Axelrad said. “We're all exposed to it. Let's do something about it. Let's do it quick. Let’s get Florida having safe water in schools for our school children."

Here’s how researchers suggest lead be taken out of water:

  1. Flush the water in the pipes — a temporary fix.

  2. Replace a building’s individual plumbing fittings or system.

  3. The most feasible? Put and maintain filters on taps.

Saff has lead testing kits, and he’d love to give them away — to homeowners or to school officials.

"They’re sitting in my office,” he said.

Daniela is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing
Danielle is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing