Water at Dozens of Portland School Buildings Had Elevated Lead Levels

By Corey Mitchell — June 02, 2016 2 min read
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The Portland public schools failed to disclose that the drinking water at dozens of school buildings had elevated lead levels, the Williamette Week reports.

District tests conducted from 2010 to 2012 found that 47 district buildings had lead levels that exceeded national guidelines, according to a database obtained by the newspaper.

After the paper emailed those test results to district leaders, the district shut down drinking fountains at all of its schools for the remainder of the school year. The revelation has sparked outrage in the 46,000-student district and raised questions about accountability.

Superintendent Carole Smith, the district’s chief operating officer, and five school board members told Williamette Week that they were not aware of the test results. The district’s environmental director did not respond to questions from the newspaper.

Portland school board chairman Tom Koehler told Williamette Week that he wants an “outside entity” to review how the district handles lead testing.

Superintendent Smith said she also wants an outside review to identify “lapses in judgment, protocol, and communication,” the newspaper reported. But some district parents were already calling for Smith’s ouster before the latest development. For two months, Smith failed to inform students, staff, and parents that tests conducted in March confirmed high levels of lead in water from sinks and fountains. The Oregonian first reported the test results in late May.

District leaders are now working to coordinate on-site blood lead level screening next month for students at the affected schools, The Oregonian reported.

The elevated lead levels like those found in Portland have “brought new concerns about testing requirements for such contaminants and about whether similar discoveries may emerge elsewhere, particularly in urban districts where buildings tend to be older,” my colleague Denisa Superville wrote in March.

Lead poisoning could have lifelong consequences, especially for young children. Research has tied high levels of lead in blood to learning disabilities, poor classroom performance, impaired growth, and even hearing loss.

The number of districts facing the lead threat continue to emerge. In Chicago, water will be tested at all the city’s public schools after initial tests at an elementary school uncovered elevated levels of the toxic metal in three water fountains.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.