HOUSTON – Each morning a team of testers moves through nearly empty hallways inside Houston schools, conducting high-stakes testing that has nothing to do with reading or writing.
Instead, these tests are looking for lead in the water coming from the drinking fountains and faucets inside the Houston Independent School District’s 302 buildings.
“This is not necessarily maintaining a building,” said Brian Busby, the district’s officer of facility services. “It’s maintaining student health.”
But KHOU 11 Investigates found testing like that being conducted by HISD is rare among Houston-area schools.
In June, KHOU 11 Investigates sent record requests to 51 school districts asking for all records of lead testing inside schools dating back 12 years.
Of those districts, only 16—or one-third—provided record of any water testing for lead.
And in some cases, those records only covered a handful of schools tested one time.
They’re results that disappointed Dr. Marc Hanfling, medical director of Harris Health System environmental health clinic in Pasadena.
“Waiting until kids are identified because they’ve got an elevated lead level doesn’t make public health sense,” Hanfling said.
That’s because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, warns exposure to lead can lead to big problems for kids including lower IQ levels, learning disabilities, hyperactivity and delays in development.
And Hanfling says it doesn’t take much exposure.
“We’re talking about minute, minute amounts to cause the elevations, which we know cause these problems,” Hanfling said.
The survey of school districts also discovered lead has been found in the water at area schools.
Of the 16 districts that had test records, nine of those had at least one test with levels of lead in a school’s water above the federal limit.
It’s something Sarah Godwin calls sad.
At 9 months old, her daughter was diagnosed with lead poisoning.
The family’s former home in Pennsylvania was eventually pinpointed as the source, but the damage to her daughter was done.
“She bites her fingers, she will suck on her arms,” Godwin said. “She used to pull her hair out in chunks.”
It was so bad, for about six months her daughter had to wear a hat to bed.
FACEBOOK CHAT: Why don't more Houston-area school districts test for lead?
“It was heartbreaking,” Godwin said. “She had bald spots all over and she didn’t have very much hair.”
Now 3 ½ years old, her daughter has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder that doctors linked to her lead exposure.
Since doctors say the effects of lead are irreversible, Godwin wonders what’s next for her little girl.
“I don’t know if she’s going to be able to learn to read and write,” Godwin said. “I don’t know if she’s going to have learning problems later—behavioral problems, impulse problems.”
Experts use a reference level of five micrograms per deciliter to identify children with blood lead levels that are much higher than most children’s levels. This level is based on the U.S. population of children ages 1-5 years who are in the highest 2.5 percent of children when tested for lead in their blood.
So, why don’t schools routinely test for lead?
It turns out as long as they’re hooked into a municipal water supply, there’s no state or federal mandate they do it.
Instead, several schools replied to the survey saying that they rely on water suppliers to test.
But experts say that reliance can miss a lot.
“They do a great job of testing at the source, where the water is produced and where the water is sent out,” Hanfling said. “The question is, once it leaves the source, what happens to it?”
And that’s an important question, because experts say lead often ends up in water through the plumbing inside a home or building.
That means if no one is testing inside a school, high levels may be missed.
That’s a scary thought for some, such as Syeda Sultana, the mother of an elementary school student at Alief ISD.
“It’s good for everybody when you test it,” Sultana said. “Otherwise we will die.”
KHOU 11 Investigates surveyed 51 Houston-area school districts for records of lead testing at their schools. Nine local schools had levels above federal limits. The Environmental Protection Agency considers more than 15 parts per billion (ppb) for a water supply dangerous and 20 parts per billion for samples taken from a municipal water supply.
INTERACTIVE MAP: Lead testing results for local districts
Limited testing earlier this year at Alief ISD discovered four samples with high levels of lead in the water.
According to records, one of the samples contained a lead level more than six times the federal limit.
KHOU 11 Investigates repeatedly requested interviews with Alief administrators to discuss the lead levels and the district’s policy of only testing faucets and fountains when they were being removed from use and not testing water outlets still used by students and staff.
The district refused those requests for an on-camera interview.
But on the same day KHOU 11 Investigates showed up outside Alief’s campuses to share the district’s lead results and testing policy with students and parents, the district announced new plans to test all faucets and fountains district-wide.
The new policy mimics that of the HISD.
HISD announced plans to test water in all buildings in July after KHOU 11 Investigates requested testing records from the district.
“I’m not just addressing this proactively for the students as an employee,” HISD’s Busby said. “I’m addressing this as a parent, as a taxpayer and as an employee myself who consumes the water we have here in the district.”
HISD now estimates its testing plan, which has expanded since it was originally announced, will cost about $400,000 for the district’s 159 elementary schools.
But testing is not a new idea.
In fact, the EPA has been recommending schools test water for lead since the late 1980s.
“Why didn’t HISD get on this train earlier?” KHOU 11 Investigates asked Busby.
“To be honest with you, we hadn’t had a concern not only in the city or the state, but more importantly, in the region,” Busby said.
He admits problems with lead-contaminated water in other parts of the country opened his eyes to the possibility of problems here.
He was the only one.
“It was just a shame what happened in Flint,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston). “I would not want Flint to happen in Texas.”
It’s why the lawmaker said she’s concerned by the lack of testing the survey uncovered, adding KHOU 11 Investigates was the first to bring the issue to her office.
“I'm so glad you did because I think this—it may be something that needs to be addressed next session,” Garcia said.
And that would be a welcome change to Godwin, a former teacher who hopes people here wake up to the reality of the danger of lead.
“Do school districts need to do better?” KHOU 11 Investigates asked.
“Yes, they need to protect our kids,” Godwin said. “We try to protect them from the outside, but we also have to try to protect them from the inside of the school.”
And already, records show both districts have had samples test over the acceptable limit.
Both districts say they’ve made changes in the plumbing to fix the problems.
SEE MORE: Lead regulations in the United States
If you have an issue that you'd like KHOU 11 Investigates to look into, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.