In the wake of the Flint, Michigan water crisis, Donald Axelrad, Ph.D. a professor in the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) Institute of Public Health was among six professors in Tallahassee conducting water sampling at 24 Leon County and Wakulla County schools.
The group determined more than a dozen of the schools had lead levels that exceeded federal standards in their water pipes. The Environmental Protection Agency lists lead levels in water of 15 parts per billion (ppb) as the safety cutoff. Lead levels ranging from 1 ppb to 25 ppb were found in the schools’ water fountains and sinks.
The findings were made public at an October Leon County School Board meeting. Axelrad said although lead levels were elevated, they are nowhere near the lead content in Flint’s water.
“Flint’s lead concentration is about 500 times higher than what we found here in Leon County,” Axelrad said. “But we want to educate the public about the potential environmental threat before we have a much larger problem.”
Lead exposure is dangerous, especially in children under 6 years old. Exposure can lead to physical and mental developmental delays. Lead poisoning causes brain damage, increases sickness, lowers IQ levels, and promotes aggression.
Apalachee, Astoria Park, Chaires, Gilchrist, Hartsfield, Kate Sullivan, Killearn Lakes, Oak Ridge, Pineview, Riley, Ruediger, Sabal Palm, Sealey, Springwood, Woodville, and W.T. Moore Elementary Schools all had some level of lead content in their water pipes.
Axelrad said potential lead poisoning is a bigger detriment to society than we realize. He added that his mission is to teach students about the moral implications of such research, and to work toward the betterment of society to fight health disparities.
“I tell my students all the time, ‘you have the power to change the world- so do it’,” he said. “One of my favorite quotes says ‘concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors’ and I truly believe that,” he added.
Two of those students are David Gbogbo and Oluwatosin Fasakin. Axelrad invited the students to assist him with the research. He said both were impressive students in his environmental toxicology class that he was able to mentor.
“David and Oluwatosin’s work on this project was exceptional,” Axelrad said. “They are fine, intelligent young men. and I have hopefully inspired them to fight environmental injustice.”
Gbogbo said he is excited to be a part of the project, and help the community around him.
“Knowing that the little work we do impacts lives is very important to us,” he said. “We are using research to transform lives.”
Other members of the research team are Alan Becker, Ph.D., FAMU professor of public health; Vincent Salters, Ph.D. and Jeremy Owens, Ph.D. of the Florida State University Magnetic Lab; Dr. Ron Saff, a local physician, and Charles Jagoe, Ph.D., an Environmental Cooperative Science Center distinguished professor in FAMU’s School of the Environment.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Saff requested the initial testing in August, and the school board funded the project through grants.
As a result of the impactful research, local k-12 administrators are working to conduct testing at all Leon and Wakulla County schools.