What's in your water?
If the lead contamination crisis in Flint taught us anything, it's that we can't take the quality of our drinking water for granted.
That's why school districts across the metro are testing for dangerous lead.
NewsChannel 5 On Your Side entered into an unusual partnership to help smaller districts that can't afford testing and the results were eye-opening.
It’s 5:30 in the morning and 5 On Your Side is going back to school.
Long before the first bell rings, our Five on Your Side foot-soldiers are racing the clock looking for lead in drinking water.
It has to be done early because sampling has to be done six hours before the fountains are used or six hours after.
Our crews are taking sample after sample from fountains, sinks, anywhere the students can get it.
Why? Because after Flint and after the St. Louis School District, where water testing showed high levels of lead, 5 On Your Side thought about the obvious: schools today aren't exactly overflowing with money.
So we reached out to schools in Missouri and Illinois and offered to test their water for lead for free.
But first we partnered up!
“I would have a problem of my child going to any school that had not tested their water for lead,” said Jeff Faust.
Faust is part-owner of an EPA certified drinking water company, Environmental Consultants in Collinsville.
It was his firm that handled the water testing at the St. Louis School District.
And since then, “We've probably done four to five thousand water samples this summer alone,” said Faust.
They've been busy and yet Faust and his firm not only joined us but donated their services for free.
“Protecting the kids is certainly mission critical,” said Faust.
So we were off, visiting schools in De Soto, Franklin County and East Alton, Illinois, collecting, documenting and packing up water.
In all we visited five schools in our area, taking about 100 samples from those locations to send to Teklab. The Collinsville-based environmental lab has been operating around the clock lately.
“In a typical month, we may run 20 to 100 drinking-water, lead-specific samples,” said co-owner Jim Riley. “In the month of September, we got 4,200 of them alone.”
Nevertheless, they too donated their services for free, because they know the impact of lead can be devastating.
Julie Weber runs the Missouri Poison Center. She says when it comes to lead exposure, young children have the most to lose.
“Causing a lowered IQ or risk for hyperactivity or Attention Deficit Disorder,” said Weber.
Which is why the EPA has a health recommendation of zero lead exposure for anyone of any age, but, out of practical concerns, allows 15- to 20-parts-per-billion.
Back at the lab our results are in.
“East Alton Middle School,” said Faust. “We did find the presence of lead at significant levels.”
Alarming news to parents.
One parent told Five on Your Side’s Mike Rush, “I don't like that at all. Lead's dangerous to kids.”
Another parent said, “That's tragic. You don't want the kids to get sick or anything.”
The worst readings were in the middle-school cafeteria kitchen, where water is used to cook and clean. One faucet registered almost 19 parts per billion. Remember, the limit is 20. This cafeteria serves food not only to middle school students, but also kids from the elementary school next door. As many as 800 children were exposed to the water.
When Mike Rush asked East Alton Superintendent Virgil Moore, “Is that too much lead for your kids, too dangerous for your kids”, Moore responded, “Absolutely, it's the position of the school district that any lead in the water at all is unacceptable.”
The district took immediate action, shutting off the water in the cafeteria kitchen and using bottled water until they could replace several faucets.
They changed six total, and four in the cafeteria alone.They're also using disposable trays and silverware.
And when parents were notified, they welcomed it.
One parent said, “That's awesome, that's great. We don't want our kids sick.”
Another said, “It's nice that the news station is doing this.”
And another parent added, “You guys are looking out for the health of our children and I appreciate that.”
“The entire state is in a financial crunch," said Superintendent Moore, "so we would not have had the water tested if it had not been for the offer from Channel 5.”
Here are the full results for the schools in the East Alton School District.