Price tag goes up for lead testing in Tacoma school drinking water

Over 23 business days, 6,520 water fixtures in Tacoma schools were tested in a search for possible lead contamination, school district officials said Thursday.

As the number of tests climbed, so has the bill, which is expected to exceed $200,000.

The school district started testing lead levels in drinking water after concerns over potential lead contamination surfaced in April.

Tacoma Public Schools Chief Operations Officer Steve Murakami said all schools have undergone a first round of testing, and second-round testing is in progress.

Of those more than 6,000 taps, 500 tested above the school district’s new standard of 15 parts per billion (Tacoma previously used the federal Environmental Protection Agency standard for schools, which is 20 ppb.)

The school district has replaced 360 water fixtures. The new fixtures are being retested to ensure they are within the district’s 15 ppb limit, Murakami said.

500Number of taps that tested high

The testing and retesting could cost the school district more than it first anticipated. On Thursday, the School Board approved spending more to finish the job.

The district initially approved a purchase order with Centric Analytical Labs, which has completed the majority of the sampling and testing reports, for $182,000.

So far, the bill has added up to $176,000. Officials say continued testing likely will exceed $200,000, which requires board approval.

The board on Thursday approved increasing the expenditure cap to $300,000.

Testing school drinking water for lead content is voluntary in Washington state. Tacoma Public Schools was testing in some buildings at least as early as 2010, and in 2012 the district put together a plan for more systematic testing, which began in 2013.

Previous test results that showed high lead levels in the water at several schools apparently were overlooked until last month.

In June 2015, test reports revealed high levels of lead in the water at Mann and Reed elementary schools. One report showed a fixture at Reed registered lead levels at 2,330 ppb, and one at Mann registered 784 ppb.

360Number of fixtures replaced so far

District officials say they could find no evidence that the manager in charge of the water testing program acted on the reports. Ken Wilson, the district’s safety and environmental health manager, was fired May 12.

The district also has pledged to start a routine testing program to monitor water problems and ensure action is taken on a regular basis.

Though health officials are concerned about children’s lead exposure and encourage schools to test and retest their water outlets, they emphasize that drinking water is not the prime source of lead poisoning in American children.

Old lead paint that dates from before 1978, and which can still be found in older homes with peeling paint, is the primary cause of lead poisoning.

Lead also was a byproduct of the Asarco smelter in Ruston, which closed in 1985. Lead emissions settled into soil in Tacoma and surrounding areas, and soil is a source of lead exposure.

Health experts say there is no known safe level of lead exposure for children.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo