Education

Tacoma Public Schools: New testing for lead in water shows fewer problems

Schools with ongoing problems will continue to supply bottled water for kids and staff until all issues are resolved. Students and staff also will be given access only to fixtures that have been cleared by follow-up tests.
Schools with ongoing problems will continue to supply bottled water for kids and staff until all issues are resolved. Students and staff also will be given access only to fixtures that have been cleared by follow-up tests. Thinkstock photo

Follow-up testing at three Tacoma elementary schools that previously registered high levels of lead in their drinking water indicates the water is now at acceptable levels, school district officials said Monday.

Those three schools are Larchmont, Manitou Park and Reed. In test results from May 2015, a water fixture at Reed had spiked at one of the highest reported lead levels in the district, with more than 2,000 parts per billion (ppb). The EPA threshold for school drinking water is 20 ppb, and Tacoma Public Schools has adopted 15 ppb as its standard. That matches the standard EPA sets for testing of public water systems, such as Tacoma Water.

All-clear messages have gone out to parents and staff members at Larchmont, Manitou Park and Reed, district spokesman Dan Voelpel said.

Problems remained in at least four other schools. New testing conducted last week showed the highest number of remaining high readings at Mann, where nine of the 67 fixtures tested at levels between 29 and 138 ppb. Voelpel said all nine of those problem plumbing fixtures were scheduled to be replaced before Tuesday morning. New fixtures will then be re-tested to ensure the problems are resolved.

Follow-up tests at Whittier, Downing and DeLong indicated one problem fixture remaining at each of those schools. One fixture at Whittier was replaced, but will remain blocked off until it can be retested. Officials are still awaiting follow-up test results at the other schools with high levels last year: Browns Point, Point Defiance, Birney, Stanley and Whitman elementary schools and Madison Early Learning Center.

The district is awaiting additional results from more elementary schools. Testing for lead in school drinking water is voluntary in Washington state.

Voelpel said schools with ongoing problems will continue to supply bottled water for kids and staff until all issues are resolved. Students and staff also will be given access only to fixtures that have been cleared by follow-up tests.

Officials Monday said outside contractors and state-certified labs conducted follow-up testing last week at all 13 schools reported with high lead levels; those reports stemmed from lead testing conducted between 2013 and 2015.

What accounts for the dramatic turnaround in test results?

The school district and its contractors are now following a protocol approved by the state Department of Health, officials said. That protocol includes a two-step process.

Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno talks about school water problems

Tacoma Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno said the district is working "full-time to remediate this situation and make sure it never happens again."

Debbie Cafazzo dcafazzo@thenewstribune.com

Here’s how a Department of Health brochure describes the two-step process:

▪ First, what’s called a “first-draw” sample is taken. Water should be tested during the week, while it’s being used by students and staff, not following a weekend, holiday or during the summer when water is not in use.

First-draw samples must be taken after water has sat in the plumbing system at least eight hours — usually first thing in the morning, before students arrive. Health officials have said this paints a “worst-case” scenario of lead content in drinking water.

▪ Follow-up testing is recommended for all fixtures where first-draw samples show high lead levels. (Again, the state standard is 20 ppb, but Tacoma Public Schools is currently using 15 ppb).

During follow-up sampling, the water is allowed to run for 30 seconds before the sample is taken. This kind of water sample is “designed to show whether lead content is coming from the plumbing behind the wall,” the state brochure states.

Chief Operating Officer Steve Murakami said Monday that the district can’t verify that those protocols were followed in all past testing, due to unclear record-keeping. That’s one reason Superintendent Carla Santorno called for a new testing program, to conclude this month, at every fixture in every school in the district. Testing will be done at middle and high schools as well as elementaries.

Ken Wilson, the district’s safety and environmental health manager, is on paid administrative leave while the school district investigates how past testing was conducted and why troubling past test results weren’t reported to district officials and the public sooner.

The district’s latest testing was prompted by concerns raised in April by Tacoma Water. The utility found high lead content after testing water from service lines leading to four residences in the city’s Lincoln District. After the city water department raised the issue publicly, The News Tribune asked Tacoma Public Schools whether it conducted routine testing and what the results showed.

The News Tribune on Monday obtained those old testing results through a public records request and is still analyzing what they show.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

Schools where tests have shown acceptable levels of lead

Arlington, Crescent Heights, Grant, Franklin, Blix, Boze, Bryant, Edison, Fawcett, Reed, Manitou Park, Larchmont.

For updates from Tacoma Public Schools: tinyurl.com/Lead-in-Tacoma-schools.

Monday’s TPS news conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-o7XWcxj240&feature=youtu.be

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