Lawmaker looks to replace water filters in over 100 schools to lower lead levels

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A state senator from Hillsborough County has launched a campaign to raise enough money to replace the water filters in more than 100 schools in an effort to lower lead levels in drinking fountains.

Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, kicked off the "Get the Lead Out" campaign on Wednesday. 
The effort began as a proposal to replace water fountain filters in every Florida school, but her initial bill failed. Now she is refocusing her efforts on older, seemingly higher-risk schools in Hillsborough County.

"Since the bill didn't pass, I decided I'd go out in the community and ask for private partnership where we created a nonprofit and asked for these corporations to help us adopt a water fountain," Cruz said.

Cruz said her proposal, SB 66, didn't pass largely due to an "indeterminate" fiscal analysis. Emails provided to FOX 13 between Cruz's legislative office and the Florida Department of Education indicate the state eventually received an estimate of $400 for the filter and installation, along with between two and four changes a year. This would push the total pricetag up to $11.7 million.

Cruz said she was able to find a company in Oldsmar, Paragon Water, that was willing to charge a fraction of the initial estimate: $30 for the filter and up to $20 for installation. The filters would only need to be changed annually.

The state senator said she didn't want the district to incur the costs, so she launched her fundraising effort. The water filters would be replaced in the 136 schools constructed before 1986, which, according to experts, is when the Environmental Protection Agency changed its lead standards.

"We just want to make sure our parents and our students, who are our clients, they have this high level of coonfidence about what we're doing to look out for the safety of children," said Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins.

The move comes after parents in Hillsborough County raised concerns last year about lead in drinking water. According to doctors, lead exposure can affect a child's development.

The district tested 11,595 water fixtures and determined fewer than 2%, a total of 207 water fountains, came back with lead levels above the district's standards, which Eakins said is higher than EPA standards.

Eakins said the district addressed the issues and the water is safe to drink even without new filters, but this is an opportunity to improve water quality even more. According to Paragon Water, the new filters can remove up to 99.9% of contaminants.

"We would just want to push it to that next level and ensure we get it down to as little of lead in any water as possible," Eakins said.

Cruz hopes to raise $250,000 -- enough to replace filters in 136 buildings for the next two years. She said roughly $77,000 has come in so far.

The senator plans to introduce a similar bill next year using the costs that were determined for Hillsborough County.