There’s still lead in water at Mid-Columbia schools, report shows. How worrisome is it?

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Lead poisoning creates toxic effects for everyone, but it is especially harmful in children's growing bodies. In this Mayo Clinic Minute, Jeff Olsen talks with Dr. Laura Breeher about the most common sources of lead exposure in children and the ir
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Lead poisoning creates toxic effects for everyone, but it is especially harmful in children's growing bodies. In this Mayo Clinic Minute, Jeff Olsen talks with Dr. Laura Breeher about the most common sources of lead exposure in children and the ir

Traces of lead have been found in schools statewide, including in the Mid-Columbia, according to a new report.

The report was written by advocacy group Environment Washington, using 2018-19 data from the Washington state Department of Health.

The report is one of the first that analyzes data of lead in school water after Gov. Jay Inslee signed a directive in 2016 to assist school districts in performing voluntary water quality tests with the Department of Health. The directive was in response to “raised public awareness of the importance of safe drinking water,” Inslee wrote.

More than 8,000 school water fixtures across Washington were analyzed for the report. It found that 60 percent had lead levels of at least 1 part per billion (ppb).

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends action be taken at 15 ppb for public water systems. For schools, that action level is 20 ppb, according to the Department of Health.

At 5,000 ppb, water is considered hazardous waste.

Even small traces of lead can be harmful, some say, particularly for children.

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Ryan Mathews, of Fulcrum Environmental Consulting, demonstrates how water is sampled. Shane P. Edinger Courtesy photo

“According to the EPA, even low levels of lead can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, and hyperactivity,” stated the report. “Lead exposure has even been linked to damaging children’s central and peripheral nervous systems.”

Of the 199 schools tested in the report, 97 percent of them had lead levels at 1 ppb or greater.

Kennewick, Richland and Pasco were among schools that tested previously and have made improvements, if needed.

Which schools are affected?

The 2018-19 testing results reported to date found elementary schools in the Kiona-Benton, Pasco and Othello school districts that did not meet the 20 ppb standard.

Kennewick and Richland had no test results reported in 2018-19, after doing an earlier round of testing.

James McGee Elementary in Pasco had one water faucet where a test found 45 ppb of lead in April 2018, according to the data used in the report. Another 17 water taps or drinking fountains at the school showed lead levels of 1 to 7 ppb.

The water faucet that tested 45 ppb was in a teacher workroom. It has been replaced, but the new faucet remains out of service until its water is checked for lead.

The district previously had tested 1,100 faucets, finding 16 faucets at which water tested more than 15 ppb. Most were at Captain Gray Elementary, and they were replaced by early 2017.

Kiona Benton Primary School had five taps or water fountains with more than 20 ppb of lead and numerous others with 1 to 16 ppb.

The highest was a fountain that tested at 125 ppb.

Superintendent Pete Peterson said when those test results came back in May 2018, the five worst water sources were immediately taken out of use and water coolers brought in.

The lead was in the fixtures, some of which were original to the school. Nineteen fixtures were replaced before the start of this school year.

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Ryan Mathews with Fulcrum Environmental Consulting demonstrated the sampling process. Shane P. Edinger Courtesy photo

The district is developing an overall monitoring system to make sure water remains safe, Peterson said

The Othello School District found 60 ppb at a kitchen sink at the Latacaga Elementary School in 2018-19 testing. The district did not immediately return a phone call.

Kennewick replaced or shut off 54 water faucets and 20 drinking faucets by early 2017 after testing 1,160 fixtures in the district looking for more than 15 ppb of lead and more than 1,300 ppb of copper.

The Richland School District, working with the city and Energy Northwest, had tested 70 samples by early 2017 and found no issues, the district said then.

The latest test results reported to the state from other Mid-Columbia districts showed some water in Whitstran and Keene-Riverview elementary schools in Prosser had levels of lead that ranged from 1 to 7 ppb at the most.

Basin City Elementary had tests that found 1 to 10 ppb of lead.

When should action be taken?

Many districts consider their water to be safe to drink if it complies with the 15 ppb standard.

But when is it truly time to worry?

In an ideal world, there would be no traces of lead in water.

“We want these kids to not have lead in their environment, period,” said Lauren Jenks, director of Environmental Public Health Sciences for the state Department of Health.

However, there’s a history of lead use in tap manufacturing that makes it difficult to completely eradicate it, Jenks said. Still, schools are asked to take reasonable action for fixtures showing traces of lead.

Lead-contaminated water alone is not likely to elevate blood lead levels in most adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But risk varies, especially for children.

Donna McNeal, from Orion Environmental Services of Federal Way, examines a faucet before taking a sample to test for lead in a Tacoma school in 2016. David Montesino News Tribune file photo, 2016

Children under 6 years old are the most susceptible to lead poisoning. Pregnant women also are susceptible.

“Even very low levels of lead in a child’s blood can affect IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement. The effects of lead exposure can’t be corrected,” according to the Department of Health.

However, the Department of Health also says on its web page section focused on lead in schools that the likelihood of drinking water at school alone causing an elevated blood level is very low.

More worrisome are other sources of lead, such as lead paint, it says.

A bill introduced to the 2019 Legislative Session by Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, would require school districts to act when 1 ppb lead levels are reported.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.