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Hillsborough School District will speed up lead testing, following Times investigation

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District said Monday it will accelerate how quickly it is testing school drinking and cooking water for lead.

The announcement came several days after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the district didn't disclose high levels of the neurotoxin in some school sinks and fountains for more than a year.

At the start of the month, the district was on pace to finish testing late in 2022, which it blamed on its three water samplers having too many other responsibilities. As recently as last week, it told the Times it hoped to test all schools older than 40 years old before closing for winter break in December.

The district will now hire outside samplers to complete the results more quickly, communications chief Grayson Kamm wrote in an email to the Times.

It now hopes to collect 10,000 samples and test every school before by December. By contrast, it collected fewer than 2,000 samples over the program's first 16 months, a Times analysis shows.

"We expect the schools over 40 years old to be finished before the end of October, with the actual timing dependent on when we receive results back from the lab," Kamm wrote.

The district began testing in 2017. Its first release of results from 48 schools occurred on July 31, days after Times reporters began knocking on teachers' and principals' doors to ask if they'd been told about the testing.

In his email, Kamm said the district has now also tested sinks and fountains at Bryan Elementary, Plant High and Booker T. Washington Elementary. "All of those 128 fixtures had a level below 15 parts per billion," he wrote.

Fifteen parts of lead per billion is the level the district is using to determine whether to disclose and attempt to fix a location. It's a limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency to make certain decisions in public water utilities.

Neither Kamm's email, nor the district's website, said whether lower levels of lead existed in those fixtures.

Health experts interviewed by the Times, however, noted that the medical community does not consider 15 ppb safe — especially for young children, who are more vulnerable to permanent harm from lead consumption.

"Anything over 0.0 poses a health risk," said Ron Saff, a Tallahassee physician who is involved in a campaign to remove lead from Florida schools. "The American Academy of Pediatrics says, let's keep it at less than one part per billion. That is what school officials should shoot for. They should follow the science."

The more detailed results can be requested from the district. The Times is also maintaining and updating its own database that includes every test the paper has received, regardless of how much lead was found.

School Board Member Cindy Stuart, when told that the district was accelerating testing, said she applauded the effort and that "most districts don't test." But by failing to notify the public of the tests or the results, she said, "there is where they dropped the ball."

A board meeting is planned for 3 p.m. Tuesday. Superintendent Jeff Eakins declined interview requests with the Times.

Saff said it is not unusual for school districts to do exactly what Hillsborough did: Test the water and then keep quiet about the results. He said he does not think Hillsborough is serving the public interest as long as it adheres to 15 ppb as a standard.

"It's not fair for the kids," he said. "Schools should be a place where children go to expand their IQ, not to have it subtracted by drinking water that has a brain poison in it."

Data reporter Eli Murray contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol. Contact Corey G. Johnson at Follow @CoreyGJohnson.