FOX10 News Investigates: Lead testing in school drinking water

Updated: Nov. 23, 2016 at 9:34 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - In light of nationwide concerns of lead contamination in school drinking water, FOX10 News took a closer look at the situation on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

It turns out, there is no law requiring school systems in Alabama to test school drinking water, and both Mobile and Baldwin County school systems have not been testing its schools’ water for lead contamination. However, because of our investigation, those two local school systems are now testing some of their schools’ drinking water.

Further, during the course of this investigation, the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) has announced it will help test all public schools.

Mobile and Baldwin County Schools’ responses to requests for lead testing

In the first week of October, FOX10 News Investigates asked the Mobile and Baldwin County public school systems if a laboratory we hired could test some of the older school buildings that may be at risk.

For weeks, there was no response.

FOX10 News even reached out to the state department of education, but still no word on testing.

Finally, in early November, the superintendents of each school system emerged with an answer.

“We don’t test, because there is no reason at this time to question any of the water supplies,” explained Mobile County Superintendent Martha Peek.

“Right now there’s really no reason to test, because we have no reason that has been brought forward,” said Baldwin County Superintendent Eddie Tyler.

However, they explained they would do their own testing at some older school buildings.

“You were asking questions, and so we said, oh okay, well we can go ahead and test,” said Peek.

“So we’re going to do our testing in the schools you indicated, and then we’ll give you the results of those tests,” said Tyler.

Strategy involved? Conflicting answers from school superintendents on lead testing

FOX10 News asked Peek if she had spoken with Tyler about the plans.

“I’ve not been in contact with Baldwin County, I really have not been in contact with anyone, except our facility division, and also the people who are testing for us,” she responded. “So, I really haven’t discussed this with anyone.”

Tyler, on the other hand, said they did consult one another about the issue.

“Martha and I have spoken about the water quality,” he said. “I communicated with Martha, because she’s a fellow colleague and a superintendent.”

Confused by the different responses, FOX10 News pressed Tyler further.

“I’m curious if you two were strategizing?” FOX10 News Investigative Reporter Kati Weis asked Tyler.

“Wow, what a stretch,” he responded. “I think you’re trying to make a story out of nothing. I think that’s exactly what you’re trying to do. Put that on the air, please.”

Investigative Reporter Kati Weis asked, “When there are states mandating schools test for lead? That’s not story?”

Tyler responded, “I don’t care what other states are doing, I care about Baldwin County.”

After our interviews with the superintendents, the ALSDE announced it would help all public schools test for lead.

Even though back in October, it would not offer any assistance on testing.

Local school system releasing test results

Mobile County Public Schools has just released its test results for eight of its older schools.

Parents and students at the following schools can rest easy knowing all the results were below the legal lead limit: Baker High School, Davidson High, Murphy High, Causey Middle, Alba Middle, Lott Middle, Lott Elementary, and Dauphin Island Elementary.

However, only one tap was tested at each school. Experts warn that lead testing at schools can be tricky, because they are larger buildings. Just because lead particles weren’t detected at one tap on one side of the school, doesn’t mean they can’t be detected on another side.

Also, Mobile County has not yet tested all of its schools; there are at least 20 schools in Mobile County built in the 1980s or before, that could have lead plumbing components.

Further, Baldwin County Schools informed FOX10 News last week, that it would be releasing the lead test results on the same day that Mobile County released its results, but FOX10 News still has not received those documents.

What is the concern for children exposed to lead in drinking water?

Following the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich., last year, states across the country have been looking more critically at the issue of lead contamination in drinking water.

Now, school districts are beginning to realize they’ve neglected to attend to an issue that may have been poisoning students for years.

In Portland, OR., extremely high lead levels were detected in several schools this summer, and the state of New York mandated this year that public school systems test its drinking water for lead.

Just last month, dozens of school systems have found high lead levels in the water students are drinking.

Dr. Curtis Turner, a pediatrician at the University of South Alabama, said children are most susceptible to the harmful effects of lead.

“The brain in children is growing at a rapid rate, so any insults they have can affect them for life. Most of it has to do with learning, it slows their learning down,” he said. “You have to worry about academic performance.”