Colorado’s five largest school districts all have either embarked on or plan to test their schools’ drinking water for lead, taking no chances after the lead-poisoning crisis in Flint, Mich.
While Flint’s problems were caused by local officials’ negligence, the concern in Colorado and most other states involves a different threat – old lead service lines, pipes and fittings. Experts say the risk here is relatively low, but applaud the districts for being proactive.
In April, Douglas County School District was the first big Colorado district to begin testing. In June, Jeffco Public Schools launched a districtwide lead-testing campaign that is still in progress. Denver Public Schools joined the club last week, and Cherry Creek and Aurora are both crafting lead-testing plans to be carried out this school year.
So far, results are in for just two districts. In Douglas County, which only tested older schools, no buildings had lead levels above 15 parts per billion, a yardstick used by the Environmental Protection Agency. In Jeffco, which is testing all schools, nearly half have at least one water source with high lead levels so far. In some cases, it’s drinking fountains. In others, it’s mop sinks.
Colorado parents have no need to worry about a reprise of what happened in Flint. Problems there were caused by a switch in the city’s water source and officials who failed to add required chemicals to prevent lead from leaching into the water.
The issue here and in most states isn’t the quality of water as it leaves the water treatment plant and runs through water mains under city streets. Instead, it’s old lead service lines connecting to homes and schools or lead pipes and fittings inside buildings. A 1986 federal law banned lead in plumbing, but many schools and residences still have pipes or fixtures containing the toxic metal.
Experts in Colorado say infrastructure here is generally newer and carries less risk of lead poisoning from drinking water than say, pipes on the East Coast. Still, they laud the increased awareness about lead poisoning, which can severely hamper children’s physical and mental development.
“It’s good that school districts are thinking about this,” said Mark Anderson, a pediatrician at Denver Health. In the wake of what’s happened in Flint, they probably don’t have much choice.”
School districts aren’t required to test their water for lead unless they’re considered public water systems. That’s the case in some rural districts and on a limited basis in Jeffco, which provides water to six mountain schools.
Despite the spate of recent school testing efforts, Anderson and other doctors say that drinking water isn’t typically the culprit in lead poisoning cases.
The risk from filling a water bottle at school every day “would be extremely low,” he said.
Flaking lead paint is more likely to poison kids. Anderson said he’s also seen cases of high lead levels tied to lead-containing jewelry or candy brought in from other countries, stained glass work, shooting ranges and a backyard radiator recycling business.
In Jeffco, where lead results have come back high for about 70 schools, parents seem to be taking the news in stride.
Heidi Anderson, no relation to Mark Anderson, said she’s glad the district is doing something about it, but isn’t worried about her fourth-grade son’s health.
He’s been tested for lead previously during routine doctor check-ups and had normal results, Plus, she said, he and his older sister, now a seventh-grader at a different school, mostly avoided the drinking fountains at Hackberry Hill anyway.
“The water at that school tastes like dirt…so we’ve always made it a point to send them with water,” she said. “I guess that’s a silver lining to all this.”
Kay Slater, who has a kindergartener and sixth-grader at Dutch Creek Elementary where two water samples showed elevated lead levels, said many of Jeffco’s buildings are old and desperately need updates.
“This is a perfect example of why we need our bond campaign to happen,” she said, referring to the district’s plan to ask voters to approve a $568 million bond and mill levy override proposal, part of which would be used for building improvements.
The Denver and Aurora districts also have large bond proposals on the November ballot, with the possibility that some funds will be used to update plumbing.
Here’s the status of lead-testing efforts in Colorado’s five largest districts.
The district launched its lead-testing initiative with 25 schools last week. Officials say they plan to finish all elementary schools by the end of October and all other schools by the end of the year. All told, 160 schools will be tested, including charter schools in buildings owned or leased by the district.
District spokeswoman Alex Renteria said the district is willing to assist charter schools in non-DPS buildings with lead testing if they choose to do it.
No test results for DPS schools have been released yet, but when they are they’ll be posted on a special district web page. Any water sources found to have elevated lead levels will be taken out of service so filters can be installed or other repairs made.
Renteria said DPS staff are collecting water samples and Denver Water is analyzing the samples for free, so there are currently no costs associated with the testing regimen. It’s too early to tell what the price tag will be for remediation efforts.
Aurora Public Schools
The district plans to test water at most of its 61 schools sometime this school year, but a final plan is still being developed, said district spokeswoman Patti Moon.
“We’ve talked a lot about being proactive with these things,” Moon said. “It’s not a requirement but we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure the water is safe.”
In April, the district contracted with an environmental services company to test lead levels in the water at 19 of its 86 schools, with a focus on older buildings. None of the samples came back above the 15-parts-per-billion limit. A mop sink at Acres Green Elementary came back just under, but after a re-test following the replacement of a brass fitting, the lead levels sank well below the limit. The testing cost $2,800.
The district’s environmental health manager, Zach Nannestad, decided to conduct lead testing after the Flint scandal erupted last winter. He said he didn’t have specific concerns about lead contamination in Douglas County schools, but wanted all the facts.
“I was very pleased with the results we got,” he said.
The district announced plans to test the water at all schools this week. District spokeswoman Tustin Amole said the testing will start “very soon,” but that an exact timeline hasn’t been determined because some testing labs are backed up with work.
About two-dozen of the district’s 65 schools were built in 1991 or after. The rest were built before 1987.
The district began testing school water for lead in early June, shortly after elevated lead levels were found in a preschool building formerly owned by the district. So far, 100 of the district’s 155 schools have been tested, with results back for 87 of those. About 70 had elevated lead levels in at least one location, according to the district’s lead-testing web page.
In some cases, the problems were mild with little chance of impacting students. For example, at Campbell Elementary, one sink in a library work room showed slightly elevated lead levels. At other schools, the problems were more widespread. For example, eight classroom sinks at Welchester Elementary showed high lead levels, with two showing lead levels of more than 100 parts per billion—well above the 15 parts per billion threshold.
District officials say water sources found to have elevated levels have either been fixed with newer parts or are blocked off until district staff can make the necessary repairs.
The total cost of the testing is expected to be around $75,000, with faucet repairs costing up to $2,500 per school.
About 115 of the district’s schools were built prior to 1988. Still, district officials are also testing newer schools because construction materials containing lead were used through about 1990, said district spokeswoman Diana Wilson.
At schools built after 1990, the district is only testing drinking fountains, she said.