Safety worries rise in Tacoma schools after lead surfaces in more than a dozen schools

Donna McNeal, from Orion Environmental Services of Federal Way, collects water samples Tuesday from a faucet inside a classroom at Mann Elementary School in Tacoma.
Donna McNeal, from Orion Environmental Services of Federal Way, collects water samples Tuesday from a faucet inside a classroom at Mann Elementary School in Tacoma.

Concern over lead in drinking water in Tacoma Public Schools continues to grow as district officials now say testing has revealed problems at 13 schools.

Officials are scrambling this week, combing through records of water testing conducted inside city schools, much of it in May 2015 and earlier. The school district said Thursday that at least nine of its elementary schools were tested this year, but it did not say which schools are on that list.

Test results were apparently never addressed by the school district, until recent concerns about lead contamination in city water were raised by Tacoma Water. The utility shared its concerns publicly last week, following an analysis of water in service line leading to four homes in the Lincoln District that showed high lead levels.

Tacoma Public Schools testing records apparently lay dormant until a request by The News Tribune for copies of the records was made April 22. The school district has placed one employee on leave as it investigates why no one raised red flags before now.

The News Tribune has also requested testing information from the other 14 Pierce County school districts.

“The sooner they get the information out there, the sooner they can clear up the questions parents have,” said Tacoma mom Bonnie Berkey, whose son attends DeLong Elementary, one of the affected schools.

Berkey says she wants complete information, not the kind of spotty facts she’s heard from the district so far.

“Tacoma Public Schools needs to give out not just the locations in each school (where water problems surfaced), but the parts per billion in every single location,” Berkey said.

She’s particularly worried because her son has attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. He attended the old Wainwright Elementary in Fircrest before it closed and he was transferred to DeLong. She wonders whether any of his behavioral issues can be attributed to drinking tainted school water either at the old Wainwright, which was razed to make way for a new school, or at DeLong.

Studies have linked lead exposure in children to learning disabilities and problems with decreased attention span, according to a 2015 state Department of Health report. Experts says the top cause of lead poisoning in children is not water, but old paint.

Berkey said she plans to call her pediatrician to schedule a blood test for her son.

Tacoma elementary schools where tests have revealed higher than acceptable levels of lead include Birney, Browns Point, DeLong, Downing, Larchmont, Madison Head Start, Manitou Park, Mann, Point Defiance, Reed, Stanley, Whitman and Whittier.

Schools where tests show safe drinking water are Blix, Boze, Bryant, Crescent Heights, Edison, Fawcett and Grant elementary schools. The district has not released any information about the remaining 17 elementary schools.

No water testing has been conducted at Tacoma middle schools or high schools, according to officials.

The district announced Monday that it had found high lead levels last year at Mann and Reed elementary schools, including one very high reading at Reed of more than 2,000 parts per billion. Water at Mann and Reed was retested Tuesday and sent for lab analysis, but no results were available early Thursday.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendations for testing of school water sets 20 ppb as the threshold for action. But EPA’s standard for public water systems like the city’s that supply water to homes, schools and businesses, is 15 ppb.

The district has not released detailed lead levels for the nine other schools where high amounts were found.

Health experts say there is no known safe level for lead exposure in young children. They run the highest risk from lead poisoning because of their rapidly developing brains and other organs.

On Wednesday, the school district told parents it was reassessing its standard for lead testing and lowering its action threshold to 15 ppb. Several of the schools on the district list have levels that range between 15 and 20 ppb, district spokesman Dan Voelpel said.

Testing lead content in school water is voluntary for school districts in Washington. The state Department of Health has been trying to change that for years, but legislators have failed to fund a mandatory testing program, health department officials say.

For now, Tacoma Public Schools has ordered bottled water for affected schools. Some parents have reported that their children’s bottled water consumption was being restricted, but officials say they are putting out the word to schools that kids should be allowed to have as much bottled water as they request.

In addition, the district has halted food preparation at seven of the schools where problems were discovered in school kitchens. Food for children at DeLong, Whitman, Whittier, Manitou Park, Madison, Mann and Reed is now being prepared at either a nearby high school or middle school.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo