In the wake of Flint, Columbia Public Schools to test its water for lead

COLUMBIA — The Columbia Public School district plans to conduct lead testing of the drinking water in all the district’s buildings over the summer.

The school district, which enrolls more than 17,000 K-12 students and 680 preschoolers, is taking action following the discovery of lead-tainted drinking water in Flint, Michigan. “This (testing) is to create a consistent baseline for all our buildings and in light of community concern nationwide after the issues raised in Michigan,” communications director Michelle Baumstark said.

The school board approved at its May 9 meeting a $41,500 contract with PDC laboratories in Peoria Illinois, to analyze up to 2,000 drinking water samples at $20 apiece. Water must sit in the pipe for six hours before taking samples, so the testing will occur over the course of the summer when fewer kids are in school, Baumstark said.

The testing is a voluntary effort by the school district, which gets its water from Columbia’s municipal water system. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, only schools that run their own water systems —about 10 percent of schools nationwide — must test for lead. The EPA estimates there are roughly 90,000 school systems and a majority of day care facilities, Columbia Public Schools included, do not have to conduct independent tests.

Why would the district have cause for concern about its water quality?

Children are the age group most at risk for side effects from lead exposure, which even at low levels may result in brain damage that can lead to behavioral and learning problems, hearing problems, and lowered IQ. Other risks include anemia, slowed growth, and in rare cases, seizure, coma, or death.

With so few schools required to test for lead in their water, it’s hard to know just how big of a problem lead contamination is. But the little testing that has been done suggests that lead contamination in school water could be a nationwide problem.

USA Today reported that of the lead testing data of school systems the EPA does have, about 350 schools between 2012 and 2015 tested above federal lead level regulations. Some of those schools had astonishingly high levels of lead in their water.

One bathroom sink in Caroline Elementary School in Ithaca, New York, had lead levels of 5,000 parts per billion, a level the EPA defines as “hazardous waste.” Four out of six schools in Howland, Ohio, tested positive in April for elevated lead levels.

With the widespread dearth of lead in water data, Columbia Public Schools is becoming part of a national scramble for testing. Water shut-offs in 30 out of 67 Newark, New Jersey, schools prompted New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to order lead testing for all New Jersey schools, uncovering more high lead levels in six out of seven Bergenfield, New Jersey, school buildings. The Des Moines public school district has found elevated lead levels in 12 of its school buildings, and Chicago Public Schools recently underwent lead testing in water fountains at 28 elementary school buildings. And the number of schools that have decided to test keeps increasing.

There has been no comprehensive testing in big city school districts in Missouri as of yet. Bigger cities like St. Louis and Kansas City have their own problems with lead poisoning in children, but they have been historically more concerned about risks from industrial sources, leaded gasoline, or lead-based paint in older houses.

Of the little testing that has been done in Missouri schools, there have been some problems. The private water system of the Head Start child care facility in Ava, Missouriwas found to have lead levels of 308.1 parts per billion during its most recent test, far past the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion per the Lead and Copper Rule. 

Many schools, some with aging buildings, are in the dark about how much lead could be in their water. The Columbia school district is one of them.

Dangers of lead contamination

Lead testing FINAL

Graphic by Kelsi Anderson

Columbia Public Schools is just one of the many school systems that hasn’t done lead testing on its water. “We’ve relied on (Columbia Water and Light) and their testing process that they use,” Baumstark said.

Connie Kacprowicz with Columbia Water and Light said the Columbia Water Utility conducts yearly testing of more than 4,000* samples from 41 locations across Columbia. The utility conducts lead testing from 50 customers around Columbia. These results are compiled and released in an annual water quality report. She said the quality of city water, from which the school district gets its water, doesn’t change much from year to year.

“Part of that is that our water comes from an alluvial aquifer,” Kacprowicz said. “It’s not coming from a river or a lake, so it’s ground water. It’s more protected, I guess I should say, than some other sources of water.”

The problem with relying on the city for lead testing is that problems with lead usually begin beyond the city’s reach.

Columbia Water Utility’s highest reported lead value was well under the action level at 2.63 parts per billion. Even so, good water at the source doesn’t always mean good water coming out of the taps.

Lead often leaches into the water through the service lines or fixtures on private property that contain lead. This point in the water delivery system, between the city and the tap, is where most lead contamination occurs. All water is naturally corrosive, breaking down lead found in piping and leaching those particles into the water as it travels up the pipe. But in the case of Flint, the water had high amount of chloride, which caused severe iron corrosion.

“It’d be pretty rare, in fact I almost sincerely doubt it, that the water coming into the schools is gonna have high lead levels,” Alan Roberson, director of policy at Corona Environmental, based in Rockland, Maine, which provides consulting services to water clients, said. Roberson is an expert on federal and state regulations relating to water sources. “Any of the water coming out of treating plants doesn’t have lead in it. It’s what happens to it when it gets to a house with a lead service line or a school that might have that water fountain.”

Kacprowicz said that by law, the city’s responsibility for water testing stops at the meter.

“Electric and water are much the same in that we don’t have the right to work on private property,” Kacprowicz said. After that, it’s the property owner’s responsibility.

With many aging school buildings, old pipes are a concern for school districts. “There have been a lot of renovations, but we have some buildings that are over 100 years old,” Baumstark said. Dangerous fixtures in addition to lead piping include copper pipes with lead soldering and galvanized iron pipes. Though the installation of lead piping was banned in the 1950s, lead solder, which connects pipes together, was used up until 1987.

Baumstark said that all pipes in CPS buildings were replaced 1994 to meet with standards at the time, and she said the district believes there is no longer lead in any of its lines. Even so, just because a building or its piping is newer doesn’t mean it’s in the clear.

The Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act went into effect in 2014. Before then, plumbing components were allowed to contain up to 8 percent lead and could be marketed as “lead free.” Steve Via, director of Federal Regulations for the American Waterworks Association, said that this is is a potential source for lead if a school tests positive for high lead.

Though you can no longer purchase these leaded brass fittings after 2014, “there are a lot of fountains out there that are not brand new, and so they don’t have the lowest levels of leaded brass that are available,” Via said.

Roberson said the issue is usually with the school fountains themselves. “The materials in (the fixtures), the alloys, can have some lead in them, so you can have some that’ll end up in the water because of the fountains themselves. So that’s what a lot of schools are doing now, is trying to understand what they have and don’t have.”

To top it off, these fountains also go for long stretches of time without being used, allowing lead particles to build up.

Water left to sit in the pipes overnight will have higher concentrations than water that’s been in use throughout the day. That buildup is especially prevalent in buildings such as schools, where the water sits untouched during weekends or school breaks. So while the concentration of lead in the water will dissipate throughout use during the day, the first kid to take a drink in the morning may receive a heavy concentration.

“A simple way to fix this would be to have facilities guys go around in the morning and flush all the fountains for a minute or two,” Roberson said. Flushing out water that has been sitting in pipes greatly reduces the level of lead in water. The caveat, Roberson said, is that this could get tricky in larger facilities with a lot of water sources, and schools would still have to pay for what they’re washing down the drain.

Solutions for a national epidemic

Experts say that in order to help solve the problem of lead and other contaminants in drinking water, the culture around water maintenance is going to have to change.

Roberson believes that due to the lack of regulation, a big part of getting lead levels under control is getting people such as engineers and big facility owners to understand their responsibilities. He said those people in charge of managing schools and other large facilities usually don’t think about maintaining water quality.

“Particularly if you’re a facilities manager, (you need to) understand that managing water quality is as important as managing the air conditioning system or keeping the plumbing in working order,” Roberson said. “I think (it’s) kind of a global issue, that’s how do you get all facilities managers of schools or the engineer at the school or a hotel to understand management of water quality within their facility?”

“There is a larger more systemic question of how do you maintain water quality among schools, in large premises,” Via said. “We’re going to have to build a body of knowledge and a body of expertise in the building maintenance community around how to maintain water quality in large structures.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story gave incorrect test numbers. The city of Columbia conducts yearly testing of more than 4,000 samples from 41 locations across Columbia. The utility conducts lead testing from 50 customers across Columbia.


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