WATCH: Tacoma school water tested for lead
Parents at four more Tacoma schools received warnings Tuesday about high lead levels discovered a year ago in drinking water at their children’s elementary schools.
Meanwhile, district officials continued to search for answers about why the information remained buried for nearly a year.
An ongoing review of testing records from May 2015 showed that water at isolated locations at Whittier, DeLong and Manitou Park elementary schools contained higher than acceptable lead levels.
Parents at those schools received phone calls and emails from Tacoma Public Schools alerting them that tests performed last year showed high lead levels at isolated spots in those schools.
A similar message went out Tuesday to parents with children at the Madison Head Start preschool program, which is part of the school district.
Tuesday’s announcement followed news Monday that May 2015 testing found extremely high lead levels at Mann and Reed elementary schools.
Those tests also had been overlooked for nearly a year until recent reports of lead-related water issues in the city — and a request from The News Tribune — prompted the district to review last year’s testing results.
The News Tribune is continuing to ask the district questions, including what lead levels were found at the four schools announced Tuesday, which schools had water testing conducted last year and whether records reviewed so far indicate that some schools do not have lead problems.
The district has not released that information, but district spokesman Dan Voelpel said he expects to make more information available to the public later this week. He said it would be posted on the district website.
“Our pace in releasing data is because we want it to be right,” Superintendent Carla Santorno told The News Tribune on Tuesday.
She said the district is focused on finding problems, retesting if necessary and fixing problems.
“We need to investigate to see where the system broke down,” she said.
The district’s review found one reading that showed lead levels at Reed as high as 2,330 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold for action by public water systems is 15 ppb.
The EPA action level is slightly higher, 20 ppb, for lead found at individual fixtures inside a school, said Mike Means, who heads the drinking water office at the state Department of Health.
Voelpel said the school district now is checking its records with an eye on the more stringent 15 ppb standard. It is looking to see whether there are schools with test results that fall between the 15 and 20 ppb level.
Tacoma Public Schools has pledged to continue reviewing records from the 2015 testing. Santorno said Tuesday she is not aware of other schools, besides the six already identified, with high lead levels.
She said she learned about problems Monday morning and ordered testing at every district school, a process that could take several weeks.
School spokesman Voelpel said that if more problems are uncovered, “we will continue to communicate to specific school communities like we did (Tuesday) morning.”
Meanwhile Tuesday, new water testing was underway at Mann and Reed. Technicians from Orion Environmental Services of Federal Way began testing the taps at Mann at 6 a.m. and were to continue at Reed.
Testers wanted to sample the water at sinks, drinking fountains and other water sources before students arrived. Optimal testing occurs after a water system sits unused overnight, experts say.
Samples collected Tuesday were to be sent to Spectra Laboratories in Tacoma for analysis.
The school district ordered follow-up testing at Reed and Mann after officials learned late Friday that tests from May 2015 had indicated high lead levels in water samples at the schools.
The district official in charge of monitoring past test results — the district’s safety and environmental health manager — apparently failed to bring them to the attention of the district, Voelpel said.
That manager was placed on paid administrative leave Monday.
The only person employed by the school district with the title of safety and environmental health manager is Ken Wilson. State records indicate his base salary during the 2014-15 school year was $102,776.
Messages left at phone numbers possibly linked to Wilson were not immediately returned.
Santorno said the district is investigating what went wrong, and why the high lead levels didn’t come to light earlier. She said district leaders are working to develop a “fail-safe system” with back-ups so a situation like this does not happen again.
The manager performed follow-up tests over the weekend, but district officials decided to retest using an outside company, Voelpel said Tuesday.
Further district review Monday showed three locations at Whittier tested higher than 20 ppb, along with seven at DeLong, four at Mantiou Park and three at Madison.
Those water outlets were blocked off, and bottled water ordered for students and staff members at the four schools until the school district can fix the problems.
Bottled water was already ordered for Reed and Mann.
Also on Tuesday, Tacoma Education Association President Angel Morton asked whether the school district will cover medical testing for teachers who seek it.
Parents were asking the same question on social media.
A spokeswoman for MultiCare Health Systems said its labs were reporting a slight increase in patient requests for testing. Blood testing is the standard measure for determining lead levels in an individual.
Santorno said the school district spoke with officials from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. She said they advised the district that universal blood testing was unnecessary.
The state health department’s Means said testing water in schools is voluntary. The state Board of Health has adopted rules requiring testing, but the Legislature has not provided funding to implement the rules.
Tacoma Public Schools began voluntary testing in 2013, Voelpel said Tuesday. (Previously the district had reported that the program began in 2012). Testing has been done only at elementary schools so far, but the district said that going forward all schools will be tested.
State and local health officials say it’s impossible to know how concerned parents should be about what Tacoma schools have reported so far.
“We don’t have any information about how the samples were collected,” Means said, noting that the EPA specifies protocols for how to test for lead in drinking water.
He said state health department officials were trying to answer questions about whether isolated high readings can produce health problems.
Overall, he said, it would be unlikely for a child to have elevated levels of lead in their blood solely from drinking water at school. Nationally, the No. 1 cause of elevated blood lead levels in children is household paint that dates from before 1978, when lead in house paint was banned.
The local health department is in the “beginning stages” of working with Tacoma Public Schools on the issue, health department spokeswoman Edie Jeffers said Tuesday.
She said the department also needs more information from the school district about how the tests were conducted.
Last year in Pierce County, there were 15 reported cases of elevated blood lead levels in children, from infants through age 6, Jeffers said. That compares to 365 statewide.