Editorials

Tacoma lead scare raises red flag on state inaction

From the editorial board

Tacoma is not the only U.S. city dealing with elevated lead levels in school buildings, and that’s why some members of Congress want stricter monitoring rules. This Feb. 4, 2016 photo shows the sinks at Eastern High School in Greentown, Ind., covered with trash bags to prevent students, staff and visitors from using the water due to concerns about lead levels above the federal action threshold.
Tacoma is not the only U.S. city dealing with elevated lead levels in school buildings, and that’s why some members of Congress want stricter monitoring rules. This Feb. 4, 2016 photo shows the sinks at Eastern High School in Greentown, Ind., covered with trash bags to prevent students, staff and visitors from using the water due to concerns about lead levels above the federal action threshold. Associated Press file

The drinking water emergency grabbed headlines and stoked distress. Routine tests flagged high levels of lead in the water on several campuses in the urban Puget Sound school district. Drinking fountains and sinks were labeled with warning signs and blocked with tape. Bottled water was brought in.

Sound familiar? This scene bears striking similarities to Tacoma in 2016, but it actually played out in Seattle Public Schools in 2006, on a larger scale (at least so far) than the lead scare now unfolding in Pierce County. Water sampling found above-normal traces in more than 300 plumbing fixtures spread across three dozen Seattle schools. It followed other water-quality problems that rocked Seattle campuses in the early 2000s.

What happened in Washington’s largest school district should have prompted timely statewide action. Elected leaders should have acted decisively to ensure children and teachers aren’t exposed to potentially unsafe levels of heavy metals at the state’s 2,400 public schools.

They didn’t.

Instead, school districts are free to conduct voluntary water tests or none at all, and those that do test can make up their own standards and practices.

The emerging lead concerns in Tacoma’s public schools, combined with Tacoma Public Utilities’ wild gooseneck chase of lead sources in private homes, illustrate how communities can be lulled into blind trust of the status quo. It takes a high-profile crisis like Flint, Michigan, to wake them up.

One key difference between Seattle and Tacoma schools was that the district up north reported its lead test results to families and took remedial steps right away. In Tacoma, alarming samples collected last May were not disclosed until last week, after News Tribune reporters started poking around.

The tests showed lead levels above the 20 parts-per-billion federal action threshold at two South End elementary schools — including an off-the-charts reading of 2,330 ppb at Reed Elementary. Eleven more elementary schools have since turned up with elevated levels. The community waits to see how widespread the problem is.

It’s inexplicable that the district’s water-quality specialist didn’t report the results up his chain of command last year. Just as mind-boggling is that his non-disclosure didn’t violate state rules for testing lead in public school water, because the Department of Health essentially has none.

True, there’s a section of Washington Administrative Code that ostensibly imposes monitoring regulations. It establishes protocols so that schools collect reliable samples. It sets a schedule of periodic testing, depending on factors such as the age of students (more frequent tests for elementary schools, because young children with rapidly developing brains are most at risk from lead exposure). It prescribes corrective actions, such as shutting down fixtures and flushing pipes.

Last but not least, it requires notification of affected parties within five business days of an excessive lead reading.

Test, respond and report. It seems so fundamental, you’d think the state would have required it years ago.

Indeed, the regulations were adopted by the state Board of Health in 2009. But state legislators declined to fund them that year, and in every biennial budget since.

Public health authorities lobbied for a slew of new school rules governing everything from water to air quality, from playground safety to mold prevention. The fine print at the top of the code says it’s “effective July 1, 2017.” That’s wishful thinking, based on the notion that the Legislature next year will finally get around to ponying up some money.

In the meantime, health officials have delayed implementation, and the code remains toothless — or, to put it more diplomatically, “these rules remain our best advice to schools,” Lauren Jenks, the DOH’s director of environmental and public health sciences, said in an interview.

Local districts including Tacoma, Puyallup and Franklin Pierce have acted responsibly by instituting voluntary water-sampling programs, though Tacoma has significant kinks to work out. Jenks said it’s a “public health success” anytime lead is detected in the environment before it’s found in children’s blood.

Caught up in the post-Flint days of reckoning, some members of Congress have ratcheted up the pressure to check water flowing from school spigots. A bill introduced this month would require states that accept federal drinking water funds to start lead-testing programs at public schools (wisely including charter schools) and report elevated results within 48 hours.

It is to be hoped that Washington state lawmakers won’t need that pressure to do the right thing.

They should add mandatory school water testing to their already prodigious list of priorities for 2017. It might not feel as urgent as a Supreme Court order to fix a broken school levy-funding system. But providing a healthy environment for students and peace of mind for parents ranks right up there, as many Tacoma and Seattle families can attest.

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