Ask ELi: Are Our Schools’ Lead Problems Unique?

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Thursday, August 11, 2016, 9:59 am
Ian Hoopingarner

There has been mounting concern about lead contamination in East Lansing water after a series of tests conducted this year revealed that the water from several faucets in various East Lansing Public School (ELPS) buildings had lead levels exceeding the US EPA-defined minimum action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

National interest in municipal drinking water supplies has been captured by one specific lead contamination catastrophe, in Flint. But reports show that the problem is a generally-underreported phenomenon across the country. EPA data shows that in 2015, 15 million people in the United States were served by water systems with lead violations.

ELi has consistently been reporting on the ongoing story about lead contamination in ELPS since the beginning of this year. In May, ELi’s chief Schools correspondent Karessa Wheeler reported for ELi that, although an April 19 press release from ELPS Superintendent Robyne Thompson (correctly) stated that 31 of the 1,000 water samples taken in the school district exceeded the 15 ppb action level, this did not take into account the 465 tests that detected measurable lead levels but did not exceed the action level. The EPA has long maintained that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.

More recently, the results from follow-up testing conducted on May 7, 2016, have been released. Some of the samples tested in this set were new, but most were retests of previously-sampled faucets after “flushing” either for 30 seconds or two minutes.

At Donley, Glencairn, and East Lansing High School, only retests with flushing were done, and no samples were over the action level, although some still had detectable lead. At Marble, all retests returned lead levels under the action level, although some of the new samples had detectable levels (under 15 ppb).

One newly-tested site at Pinecrest showed 740 ppb for the first test and 180 ppb on the second draw, without flushing, and one retested site at Whitehills still showed 33 ppb after a 30-second flush and detectable levels after a two-minute flush. Four newly-tested faucets at MacDonald Middle School returned results exceeding the 15 ppb action level.

ELPS is not unique in having high lead readings. Many cities — and indeed, many school districts — across the country are reporting high levels of lead in their drinking water systems.

Lead in drinking water became a significant problem in Flint after administrators working for the unelected Emergency Managers decided to switch water sources to the Flint River and then made decisions to treat the water in ways that increased its corrosivity while failing to treat the water with anti-corrosive chemicals. All of this meant that the water corroded particles of lead from the inside of pipes, greatly increasing lead levels in the drinking water throughout Flint.

New reporting from The Oregonian reveals that water tests from the Portland Public School District, which had already previously shown high levels of lead in old buildings, now show lead contamination at the district’s newest school, built in 2006. Jackson and Roosevelt Elementary Schools in Medford, Oregon, just recently shut down their drinking water systems because more than 70% of drinking water sources at both locations exceeded 20 ppb. Jefferson Elementary in Corvallis, Oregon, has also returned positive tests for lead recently, although none that yet exceed the federal action level.

Meanwhile in Washington County, Maryland, a water fountain has been removed from a middle school and two faucets have been taken out of an elementary building after tests revealed high levels of lead. In Fort Worth, Texas, 400 drinking fountains are due to be removed from school district buildings in response to lead testing that turned up several positives. And Astoria School District in Washington state is now turning off water taps in schools that have tested positive for lead.

Lead contamination at the municipal level is not out of the norm today, either. Small Ohio towns like Sebring and Warren have shown lead contamination issues in their water systems that are remarkably similar to Flint’s water catastrophe. And so have larger cities. In the past week, for example, Fresno, California, has found detectable levels of lead in 40% of residential water supplies.

Pittsburgh has been embroiled in a drinking water crisis as well. Last month, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority was ordered by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to replace all its lead water lines after tests showed elevated levels of lead in the water. However, according to a report released this week, while “Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority now must … replace lead service lines connecting to some city homes with plastic pipes, first, they need to figure out which of its underground lines are made of lead,” which means that the city has no clear record of where lead pipes might be present in the city.

Nationally, the Natural Resources Defense Council recently released a report examining “deficiencies in the Safe Drinking Water Act” and “poor and unaccountable decisions by public officials,” which have led to “lead-related issues in drinking water systems across the United States.” Despite assembling a database showing the geographic extent of lead and copper violations in 2015 — which shows that some 18 million U.S. residents were served by a water system with a lead violation — the authors note that they still don’t have all the information.

Even Flint’s recent lead violations, for example, do not show up in the EPA data available to the NRDC. The June 28 report says this fact “illustrates the serious problem of underreporting and gaming of the system by some water supplies to avoid finding lead problems.”

Although the situation in Pittsburgh regarding that city not knowing the location of lead plumbing seems to echo the announcement just sent out by the City of East Lansing regarding its lack of knowledge about the location of lead goosenecks connecting city water mains to residential service lines, readers should keep in mind for the moment that East Lansing’s Infrastructure Administrator has emphasized that: “The City does not expect any properties to report lead service lines.” (Read more in our special report on the City’s attempt to survey piping.)


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