Lead testing rates of Tacoma-area children rose after water scare

More than the usual number of Tacoma-area parents had their kids’ blood tested for lead following recent concerns over high lead levels in city and school drinking water, state Department of Health Secretary John Wiesman said Wednesday in Tacoma.

But the additional testing did not uncover an increased incidence of lead levels requiring medical attention, he said. That was confirmed by other health department officials, but they said they will not release actual data until August.

Last year, Pierce County had 15 reported cases of elevated blood lead levels in children, from infants through age 6, according to Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. That compares with 365 statewide.

Wiesman’s remarks came during a visit to Mann Elementary School by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington. Murray was in Tacoma to visit a school where high lead levels had been found and to gather information on how the alarm over lead played out in the city.

Blood testing is the standard measure for determining lead levels in an individual. While lead in drinking water can contribute to the problem, old paint containing lead is the most common cause of lead poisoning in children. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure because of their small body size and developing brains.

Wiesman called the recent blood testing results “reassuring,” while also emphasizing that public health officials still want to remove as much lead as possible from the environment.

In May 2015, 67 water outlets were tested for lead at Mann, and 31 of those fixtures tested high. But school officials said the results at Mann and other schools weren’t addressed until this spring. That’s when The News Tribune inquired about lead water testing in schools.

The school district has just completed a first round of testing at all its schools — more than 6,000 fixtures — and has replaced more than 300 of them that were found to be faulty and contributing to lead in the water. Water from the new taps is being retested to ensure the replacements have fixed the problems.

This bill was a first step to address this critical issue by getting resources for voluntary lead testing in schools to the places where they are needed most

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray

Murray and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, are among the 25 co-sponsors of proposed Senate legislation that would use a combination of loans, grants and tax credits to inject more than $70 billion over the next 10 years into water infrastructure and lead relief programs. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, is the lead sponsor of the bill.

The legislation would require mandatory, nationwide reporting by states of elevated blood lead levels in children. It would also:

▪ Create a new grant program to fund school programs to help lead-affected children

▪ Increase funding for projects that reduce lead in tap water

▪ Establish mandatory testing and notification of the public about lead found in water systems

▪ Create a new tax credit for homeowners as an incentive to remove lead in their homes.

It does not, however, mandate lead testing of water inside school buildings.

“This bill was a first step to address this critical issue by getting resources for voluntary lead testing in schools to the places where they are needed most,” Murray said. She said that, given the increased interest in the topic, there may be more congressional action in the future.

In Washington state, lead testing by school districts is voluntary. The state Board of Health adopted rules in 2009 requiring school water testing for both lead and copper, but the Legislature has not provided funding to implement the rules.

State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, who also attended the discussion at Mann, said she plans to raise the funding question.

“We have to implement the school rules,” she said.

Tacoma School Board President Karen Vialle said that, in addition to dollars for testing, districts need standardized testing protocols.

This is something that can’t be taken back

Betsy Kindblade, parent

Murray said she came to Tacoma to hear concerns from officials and parents. While the situation in Tacoma doesn’t compare with what happened in Flint, Michigan, she said, it should still serve as “an important wake-up call that our infrastructure is aging.” She believes the federal government can play an important role in addressing the problem.

The News Tribune requested the results of Tacoma schools’ lead testing in April after Tacoma Public Utilities revealed that it had found high lead levels in its drinking water at a few locations in Tacoma’s South End. The utility said short lengths of lead pipe called goosenecks could be to blame.

Subsequent testing by TPU showed that the testing method itself contributed to the high lead levels and that water at the tap at those locations did not have the same problems. The utility has nonetheless made it a goal to remove all goosenecks in five years.

Wiesman said the state health department has set a goal that calls for large water systems to be lead-free within 15 years. He also said health officials believe more blood testing for lead in children is needed.

Betsy Kindblade, mom of a 7-year-old and a baby who slept through the discussion, reminded officials that the minds and bodies of developing children can be permanently harmed by lead exposure.

“This is something that can’t be taken back,” she said. “We need to keep that in mind.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo