School Climate & Safety

Schools on Alert Over Water Quality

By Darcia Harris Bowman — March 17, 2004 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: Claire Barnette, the executive director of the Healthy Schools Network, was incorrectly quoted. Ms. Barnette said: “No amount of lead needs to be in the water children drink. You can’t see it or taste it;you have to test for it, and schools aren’t doing that.”

Seattle’s water woes became public this school year, thanks to four little containers of rust-colored water from fountains in the city district’s Wedgewood Elementary School. Those samples, collected by concerned parents, were tested by a certified laboratory and found to exceed federal lead limits.

As a result, students in many Seattle schools are drinking bottled water these days, and the district hired a contractor last week to measure the scope of the contamination problem and fix it.

Schools across the country are examining the quality of the water their students and staffs are drinking and reaching similar decisions. In the past year alone, schools in California, Maine, New Jersey, New York state, and the District of Columbia have also contended with lead-tainted water.

With school buildings aging faster than they can be replaced or renovated, lead-contaminated water is a problem for just about every school district in the country, claim public-health advocates such as Claire Barnette, the executive director of the Healthy Schools Network, a nonprofit coalition for improving children’s environmental health.

Yet few schools conduct water-quality tests as a matter of course, critics say. And unlike federal prisons and military facilities, schools aren’t legally required to do so under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

But there may be compelling reasons for schools to show more initiative on the issue.

Numerous studies have shown that lead exposure causes a range of serious health problems, especially for children, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, slowed growth, hearing problems, and headaches, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

While paint chips and paint dust in older homes and buildings are the leading source of lead exposure for small children, public officials also cite lead pipes and lead soldering in water fixtures and piping as a significant risk.

“No amount of lead needs to be in the water children drink,” Ms. Barnette said. “You can’t see it or test it—you have to taste for it, and schools aren’t doing that.”

Not a Priority

How Does Lead Get Into Water?

Lead enters the water (“leaches”) through contact with the plumbing.

Lead leaches into water through:

  • Corrosion of
    —Pipes
    —Solder
    —Fixtures and faucets (brass)
    —Fittings
  • Particles caught in water-faucet aerators

Water characteristics, such as pH, hardness, and temperature, affect the amount of leaching.

Hotlines and Information

National Lead Information Center:
(800)-424-LEAD

EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline:
(800)-426-4791

Drinking Water Information: www.epa.gov/safewater/lead

Plumbing Standards:
www.nsf.org

Schools and Day Care Centers: www.epa.gov/safewater/lead/ schoolanddccs.htm

SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency

Seattle parents Geoffrey C. Compeau and Mark Cooper, both fathers of Wedgewood Elementary pupils, demanded action once the results of their tests were confirmed. They also accused the district of trying to cover up dangerously high lead levels that were first detected in four elementary schools, including Wedgewood, in the early 1990s.

Nothing was done, Mr. Compeau said.

“To realize they had all this information and that these recommendations were 10 years old was very troubling,” he added.

Mistrustful of district officials, the fathers brought their concerns to a newly elected school board early this school year, as well as their state legislator, prompting quick action on both fronts.

The school board ordered the district to begin supplying bottled drinking water to 88 schools in January, a practice that will continue until testing shows the water at various schools meets federal standards.

And last week, the district announced it had hired an outside consultant to advise the district on water testing and remediation of any contamination problems.

At the same time, the school board is working on a districtwide policy for ongoing water-quality testing to ensure that future contamination problems are found and dealt with promptly, said Patti A. Spencer, a spokeswoman for the 48,000-student Seattle school system.

“It’s clearly apparent that this issue hasn’t been handled in an ideal manner by any stretch of the imagination,” Ms. Spencer said. “For whatever reason, it didn’t bubble up as a priority.”

The lead issue is bubbling up as a concern in the nation’s capital.

After weeks of controversy over allegations that lead has flowed unchecked through the water system in the District of Columbia, officials in Washington randomly tested taps in 154 school buildings recently.

When eight of the 752 samples exceeded the federal standards for lead contamination, interim schools Superintendent Elfreda W. Massie cited the results to parents in a Feb. 24 letter as proof that “the vast majority” of the city’s schools had “no detectable quantities of lead in the water.”

Last week, though, after parent leaders in the capital complained that random testing was an insufficient safeguard, the local water and sewer authority announced it would expand testing in the 63,000-student district.

In other examples across the Northeast, federal regulators have asked districts to test their drinking water when they operate in jurisdictions with a high incidence of childhood lead poisoning.

The Environmental Protection Agency made that request of the 22,000-student Syracuse, N.Y., school system last summer. District officials agreed to cooperate, even though the agency lacks the authority to require the testing.

The Syracuse schools are now in the end stages of a project to replace fixtures and install filters and new pipes. Systemwide testing by the EPA turned up 120 samples of drinking water with unsafe levels of lead—levels higher than 20 parts per billion—out of more than 1,300 samples.

Nicholas DiBello, the district’s director of maintenance and construction, estimates that the testing and repairs will cost at least $100,000—a tough hit for a district facing a possible $30 million budget shortfall next school year.

But “it was the right thing to do,” Mr. DiBello said. “We want our schools to be safe.”

Leaded water isn’t just a problem in older buildings, and the contamination can go unnoticed because it typically can’t be seen, tasted, or smelled.

“Many factors contribute to lead concentrations in water, including water characteristics and plumbing components,” the EPA warns in guidance for schools posted on its Web site. “In some cases, older buildings, despite having leaded plumbing components, do not leach significant amounts of lead into the water.”

‘Be Proactive’

Still, many of the water problems that have erupted over the past year have been in city school districts where older buildings are in abundant supply.

Baltimore schools face up to $2 million in repairs, mostly in the form of new plumbing fixtures, faucets, and drinking fountains.

When high lead levels were first found in many of the schools in the early 1990s, maintenance workers and administrators responded by taking fountains out of service, posting signs, and regularly flushing taps by running water to clear out contaminants.

City health officials and parents say those procedures were largely abandoned during leadership turnover in the district over the course of the decade.

That neglect set the stage for the controversy of the past year, which included a threatened lawsuit by parents, the firing of two top district maintenance officials, and threats of fines from the city health department.

So, although filters might be a less expensive fix for the water problems, the Baltimore health commissioner refuses to entrust the district and school maintenance staff with the task of periodically changing filters.

That mistrust led the health commissioner to insist last winter that the 90,000-student district shut off all drinking fountains in every school, supply bottled water to students, and post signs warning students not to drink the water from restroom sinks—even though some schools might not have had lead contamination.

“We shut off all the water fountains because we just couldn’t trust the school system to give us the information and keep the appropriate records,” Baltimore’s health commissioner, Peter L. Beilenson, said last week.

His warning for other school systems: “There are legal issues associated with unnecessarily exposing children to high levels of lead. Be proactive, because just one parent can make it an issue.”

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