After initially planning to only test nine schools this summer for lead contamination in its water outlets, the Houston Independent School District reversed its policy Wednesday evening and will now test all of its 153 elementary schools this year, following questions by the Houston Press about lead testing to HISD officials.
In interviews Wednesday, before the changed policy was announced, School Board Trustee Harvin Moore and United Labor Unions Local 100 Field Director Orell Fitzsimmons said HISD officials had previously told them they planned to test only nine schools for lead each year. When asked about this plan, HISD spokeswoman Lila Hollin said Wednesday, “As far as how many and which ones, that hasn't been decided yet.”
At a rate of only nine schools per year, with 283 schools to test, the district wouldn't have finished its tests for more than 30 years.
Yet around 6 p.m. Wednesday, after the Press spoke with Hollin and called numerous HISD employees that day with questions about the district's lead testing policy, Board of Education trustees received a one-paragraph email from HISD Interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt. That email said something very different.
“While we have tested a number of our schools in HISD, we have decided to take a much more proactive and aggressive approach,” Huewitt wrote in the email. “I have asked the facilities team to test all elementary schools this year. All middle schools will be tested in the 2017-2018 school year. Finally, any remaining high schools that have not been completed with the bond program will be tested in the 2018-2019 school year.”
“Results for each facility will be posted on the HISD website as well as a schedule outlining when testing will occur,” Huewitt added.
Fitzsimmons first took an interest in HISD's lead testing policies after watching the water crisis unfold in Flint, Mich. He submitted multiple public information requests asking about HISD's records and practices regarding testing for lead contamination, and spoke at the June 9 Board of Education meeting about the district's need to test all of its schools for lead, starting with elementary schools – the age group most at risk for lead poisoning.
Lead poisoning strikes at children's developing bodies and brains, damaging the nervous system and often results in long-lasting cognitive and physical problems. “We know that there is no safe level of lead consumption,” said the incoming American Medical Association president, Andrew W. Gurman, in a June statement.
“Parents think this was taken care of years ago,” Fitzsimmons said, as Congress banned the use of lead in public water systems in 1986. “But it wasn't.”
Fitzsimmons said that, in a June 27 meeting with Brian Busby, HISD's Officer of Facilities Services Department, Busby told him that only nine schools would be tested in the upcoming year. “He said he was willing to test all the schools but he didn't have all the money,” Fitzsimmons said, adding, “He said he can't do it faster.”
In an email Thursday, Hollin said that HISD “will not be able to accommodate an interview” with Busby for this article.
Testing all of HISD's 153 elementary schools is estimated to cost $130,000, Huewitt wrote in his email.
“I was surprised to learn that the cost was not onerous or excessive, but in the end I think it's really important just for us to know,” said Anna Eastman, a HISD Board of Education trustee. “And if there is a problem with lead containment at our schools, then we need to fix that. And if not, then we can reassure our constituents and our families that there isn't a risk for them.”
“When Orell Fitzsimmons talked about it at the board meeting and just pointed out how many districts have found that there are lead fittings in some of the pipes that are kind of close to water fountains in other cities, I thought, 'He is right,'” said Harvin Moore, Board of Education trustee. “We don't know if we have a problem until we test it.”
Following that meeting, Moore said he contacted HISD's Chief Technology Information Officer Lenny Schad to see if HISD had any plans to test more of its schools for lead.
“[Schad] said, at that time, that they were going to do a random sampling of nine schools during the annual backflow testing that gets done in the summer,” Moore said Wednesday afternoon, adding that he did not know when that policy decision had been made. (Backflow testing ensures that, within a water system, water is only flowing one way – so that, for example, water used in the schools doesn't flow back into the city water supply.) At press time, Schad's office had not returned calls or emails asking for comment about lead testing.
Huewitt's email also highlighted another change from HISD's previous practices. “The test will include every water source children at that facility can access,” he wrote of the upcoming school samplings.
In March, HISD randomly selected five schools to be tested for lead contamination, Hollin said. Of these schools, each had only three water outlets tested for lead, according to documents Fitzsimmons received as part of his public information requests – even though one of those tested schools, Nathaniel Q. Henderson Elementary School, had 15 water outlets that students could access, said custodian Ieythela Reed.
Moreover, only two of the schools serve elementary-age students.
One school's water fountains tested for higher lead levels than the rest of the building. “Although the lead levels in the water fountains were within acceptable standards, they were marked for replacement as a precaution,” Hollin wrote in an email to the Press Wednesday. An HISD press release, released Thursday, said, “Lead levels in all water samples were within acceptable standards.” It did not mention the fountains marked for replacement.
Records of any previous testing HISD might have performed for lead contamination are scarce. But according to one HISD employee, the district did check its piping for lead – back in 1986. Brad Bailey, who said he served as HISD's insurance manager and worked in the risk management department at the time, said he was involved in the tests, which sampled every water outlet in every school.
“I remember going early in the morning to take samples for them,” said Bailey, who now oversees HISD employee benefits. He added, “My recollection is that we did have a number of fountains that were identified with high lead levels, and they were removed from service and replaced.”
When asked how many fountains that might be, Bailey said, “It'd be more than a hundred, probably less than a thousand. Honestly, I don't know.”
Bailey said he didn't know why, if the water sources had been checked in 1986, one school still had sources that tested positive for high lead levels. He did not recall what thresholds the 1986 tests used to designate whether water outlets were “acceptable.” (The EPA's threshold is now 15 parts lead per billion, but it was 20 parts per billion until 1991.)
Bailey said he also wasn't sure where records of those 1986 tests were kept. HISD's Risk Management department said they did not have documentation of the tests, while the Record Management department did not reply to calls or information requests for the records at press time. And when Fitzsimmons asked to receive “a copy of any and all reports concerning testing of HISD schools for lead contamination in 1986,” as part of his own information request, he instead received only the results from the March 2016 tests.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
In response to questions regarding whether or not any lead tests were conducted prior to March 2016, Hollin simply wrote in an email, “The service lines are maintained by the City of Houston and the city is required to do the lead testing.”
While that's true – community water systems, like Houston, must meet the EPA standard – water could still be contaminated thanks to the HISD-owned, possibly lead-fitted pipes that water travels through on its way to a child's mouth.
“It's not about the city water,” Moore agreed. “You have to go the water fountains and test in several places.”
For his part, Fitzsimmons said that he is “ecstatic” about the changed district plans. “It's not every day that you can influence a $1.6 billion corporation, which is what we're dealing with here,” Fitzsimmons said. He added, “I'm really happy with [Huewitt], I'm really happy that the school district listened to reason and actually believes in science and, you know, is gonna jump on this problem… This is a great first step.”