EDITORIAL: Get the lead out: Much-needed water testing ordered for nation’s schools

The Rio Grande Valley is rich in history. Its residents and officials know this, and the many historic buildings that continue to stand proudly are testament to their devotion to historic preservation. They include school buildings, some of which date back as much as a century.

It isn’t necessarily a problem-free situation, however. Old buildings often carry old problems and risks, and some of them need to be identified and corrected as quickly as possible.

Among those issues is the fact that some building materials that were popular just a few decades ago have been found to be health hazards. For example, asbestos was used in both siding and insulation, but it has been found to cause cancer. Lead, used extensively in materials ranging from paint and pipes to soldering materials, has been linked to neurological problems, and affects childhood development.

Lead is of special concern, since it can leach from old pipes into water that flows through them. Lead problems that emerged in the Flint, Michigan, drinking water in 2014 drew national attention and is still being addressed, from Flint to our nation’s capital.

In that vein, in one of the final official acts of the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency in December ordered a comprehensive review of the drinking water systems in all elementary schools and child care facilities in the country.

It’s a laudable project, one that should have been undertaken decades ago. And it’s a massive undertaking, considering the dozens of elementary schools and child-care centers in the Valley alone, and more than 25,000 just in the state of Texas. The EPA order calls for 20% of every district’s elementary schools and city’s child-care centers to be tested every year for lead, copper and other potentially toxic materials until the entire district has been covered.

To be sure, many school districts and utility companies have removed old lead-based pipes from their campuses since the material was banned in the 1980s. That’s barely more than three decades, and perhaps as many as half of Valley schools were built before then. Such a comprehensive, nationwide review has never been conducted, and there is no centralized databank that indicates what water systems are safe and which might be outdated and still posing a risk to students.

Unfortunately, the order was not supported with legislation to provide funding for the testing. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which will be in charge of the project in this state, has requested $8 million from the Texas Legislature to fund the testing and corrective actions.

Such an expense in the name of our children’s safety can’t be downplayed. Tight economic conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, will make it harder for the state alone to honor the entire request as well as meet the needs of the many other agencies and necessities the legislature must fund.

As this order originated from the federal agency, our Congress members would do well to consider proposing legislation that would provide funding that helps states cover the cost of the project.

We hope the review finds that most of the water systems our children are using are safe. It’s important, however, to be sure that they are and update those that need it. The endeavor merits our lawmakers’ full support.