Education

There’s still lead in water at Pierce County schools, report shows. How worrisome is it?

WATCH: Mayo Clinic Minute - lead exposure risks for kids

Lead poisoning creates toxic effects for everyone, but it is especially harmful in children's growing bodies. In this Mayo Clinic Minute, Jeff Olsen talks with Dr. Laura Breeher about the most common sources of lead exposure in children and the ir
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Lead poisoning creates toxic effects for everyone, but it is especially harmful in children's growing bodies. In this Mayo Clinic Minute, Jeff Olsen talks with Dr. Laura Breeher about the most common sources of lead exposure in children and the ir

Traces of lead have been found in schools statewide, including ones in Pierce County, according to a new report released Wednesday.

The report was conducted by advocacy group Environment Washington, using data from the Washington State Department of Health.

The report is one of the first that analyzes data of lead in school water after Governor Jay Inslee signed a directive in 2016 to assist school districts in performing voluntary water quality tests with the Department of Health. The directive was in response to “raised public awareness of the importance of safe drinking water,” Inslee wrote.

More than 8,000 school water fixtures across Washington were analyzed. The report found that 60 percent had lead levels of at least 1 parts per billion (ppb).

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends action be taken at 15 ppb for public water systems. For schools, that action level is 20 ppb, according to the Department of Health.

At 5,000 ppb, water is considered hazardous waste.

Even small traces of lead can be harmful, some say, particularly for children.

“According to the EPA, even low levels of lead can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, and hyperactivity,” stated the report. “Lead exposure has even been linked to damaging children’s central and peripheral nervous systems.”

Of the 199 schools tested in the report, 97 percent of them had lead levels at 1 ppb or greater.

So far, Pierce County schools tested in 2018-19 for water quality are from Tacoma, Bethel, Clover Park, White River, Eatonville, Steilacoom and Lakewood school districts.

Which schools are affected?

As of February, the Department of Health tested hundreds of schools across Washington. In Pierce County, more than 30 schools have been tested.

Elementary schools tested from Tacoma include Bay Terrace, Fawcett, Jason Lee, McKinley, Madison Head Start and Sheridan. IDEA Park High School was also tested.

Of the seven schools, only Bay Terrace Elementary had levels less than 1 ppb for all tested fixtures. Only Bay Terrace and Sheridan Elementary schools had less than 15 ppb for all tested fixtures.

Madison Head Start showed the highest lead levels for Tacoma, with one fixture reaching 99 ppb. The school was tested in March 2018.

Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel said the district has taken action to replace fixtures when necessary.

“Any fixture with a reading of 15 ppb or higher gets replaced,” Voelpel wrote in an email to The News Tribune.

In 2016, the district tested all drinking water fixtures in every school, replacing more than 600 fixtures. The action was taken after reports surfaced of high lead levels in some of the district’s schools and lead to the firing of one staff member.

Now, the district tests all drinking water fixtures in a three-year cycle and posts results online.

In Bethel, 13 schools have been tested for lead. Only one had levels less than 1 ppb for all tested fixtures. Seven out of 13 schools had lead levels less than 15 ppb for all fixtures.

“As we received each school’s test results back, parents were notified, and any fixtures that had lead levels that needed to be addressed were taken out of service and fixed,” Bethel School District spokesman Douglas Boyles said. “This involved flushing systems, replacing faucets and replacing piping.”

The highest level reported for Bethel was at Naches Trail Elementary in August, where one boiler recorded a 8,509 ppb lead level — well over what the EPA considers hazardous waste.

The high number was an anomaly, and the water was never used by staff or students, Boyle said.

“After the fixtures are fixed, they are retested by the Department of Health,” Boyles wrote in an email to The News Tribune. “Once they pass, only then do we put them back into service. If needed, we supply bottled water during the repair time.”

The most recent report in November shows the same boiler showing lead levels of 17 ppb — still above the 15 ppb action level.

In general, schools re-tested after replacements or flushing of the water system showed a decrease in lead levels, but in some cases, traces remain.

When should action be taken?

Many districts consider their water to be safe to drink if it complies with the 15 ppb standard.

But when is it truly time to worry?

In an ideal world, there would be no traces of lead in water.

“We want these kids to not have lead in their environment, period,” said Lauren Jenks, director of Environmental Public Health Sciences for the state Department of Health.

However, there’s a history of lead use in tap manufacturing that makes it difficult to completely eradicate it, Jenks said. Still, schools are asked to take reasonable action for fixtures showing traces of lead.

Lead-contaminated water alone is not likely to elevate blood lead levels in most adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But risk varies, especially for children.

Children under 6 years old are the most susceptible to lead poisoning. Pregnant women also are susceptible.

“Even very low levels of lead in a child’s blood can affect IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement. The effects of lead exposure can’t be corrected,” according to the Department of Health.

Still, most lead poisoning doesn’t happen with contaminated drinking water but with lead-based paint.

A bill introduced to the 2019 Legislative Session by Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle would require school districts to act when 1 ppb lead levels are reported.

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