State environmental regulators have found elevated lead levels in the water of nearly 70 schools in Maricopa County, including one with 135 times the federal safety standard.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality began voluntarily screening schools statewide in January, following lead contamination fears and the publicity surrounding Flint, Michigan. The state is about halfway through the testing, which concludes in June.
No law requires the state to test drinking water in schools. ADEQ is required only to test lead in water-supply systems coming into those schools, but lead can appear in school plumbing. Even the word plumbing comes from the same Latin root as lead.
“Many schools’ drinking water never has been tested for lead,” ADEQ said on its website.
So far, regulators have tested 773 schools throughout the Valley and have found that 69 schools, or 9 percent, had levels above 15 parts per billion. The federal standard is 20 ppb.
In drinking water tests, ADEQ reported that 88 fountains, or about 3 percent, had lead levels above the standard.
“There is a relatively low incidence of lead exposure in school buildings,” ADEQ Director Misael Cabrera said, based on what he called “a worst-case sampling.”
ADEQ took samples out of taps and fountains first thing in the mornings. Lead leaches and concentrates in stagnant water more than running water, so the levels are presumed higher than those kids might encounter during the day at a busy hallway fountain.
Creighton Elementary School in Phoenix had five cases above the threshold in drinking water, the most in Maricopa County. It was also one of only seven schools where a fifth or more of the samples came in high.
Creighton Elementary recorded one sample at 2,700 ppb – 135 times the federal standard, Cabrera said. Most exceedances were around 20 ppb.
Jay Mann, assistant superintendent of operations at Creighton Elementary School District said the high reading came from a rarely used sink in the librarian’s office. That seemed to be the pattern – largely isolated and disused sinks were the chief culprits. The school shut off all the valves to those fixtures and posted signs warning the water was not for drinking there.
He said he was not surprised by lead levels, given that some sewer lines still have tarpaper pipes. Creighton is slated to be demolished and replaced.
Schools, like parents at home, can eliminate the risk of lead by running the tap for a minute before drinking, filtering the water, or shutting off the valve.
Environmental health and toxicology experts say parents should not be alarmed by the state’s findings.
“We, as toxicologists are not concerned about this,” said Dr. Steven Curry, the director of the Department of Medical Toxicology at Banner-University Medical Center Phoenix.
Curry explained that conclusive studies don’t exist clearly connect lead levels in water to those in bloodstream.
Also, much higher lead risks come from other sources such as paint, dirt, toys, pottery, and, once upon a time, tailpipe emissions.
State health officials agree.
“Here in Arizona, we’ve never had any cases of childhood lead poisoning associated with drinking water,” said Jessica Rigler, branch chief for public preparedness at the Arizona Department of Health Services. She oversees the environmental health team.
One reason may be that kids don’t drink that much water from fountains. If they drink water – and, parents can attest, that might be a big if – many bring safe bottled water.
“The amount of lead on a single paint chip on the end of a kid’s thumb would be enormous compared to what they might drink,” Curry said, noting that the health risks from lead come from long-term accumulated exposure.
Nonetheless, there are old buildings in Arizona and many are packed with kids.
Gilbert Elementary School, built between the world wars, measured five drinking water samples with elevated lead levels. Its own district office was also near the top of the list, and it’s even older.
Two hot spots were in the Alhambra Elementary School District on Phoenix’s west side. Andalucia Middle School had four elevated readings from drinking water. Cordova Middle School had three.
Alhambra, like Creighton, noticed the high levels from rarely used and older sinks. Crews flushed the fixtures and shut off all the taps in buildings where high lead levels were taken, said the school district’s communications director, Linda Jeffries.
When ADEQ found high levels, schools like Andalucia, Cordova, and Creighton sent form letters to parents. Both school districts reported no major concerns from parents.
They now await response from the state School Facilities Board to help pay for repairs.
Regulators at ADEQ began testing schools because lead contamination can retard brain development in children and young kids are particularly endangered by the heavy metal.
The state agency focused its probe in four areas: schools attended by younger kids; buildings older than 1987, when new U.S. environmental regulations kicked in; a random sample of newer schools and facilities in zip codes with high lead levels.
The Arizona Department of Health Services lists on its website the risky zip codes, based on modeling, not measurements. The list is extensive. There are 31 zip codes in Phoenix alone. Valley-wide, state health officials list another 36 zip codes. Maricopa County has 244 zip codes.
The state advises parents living in those zip codes to get blood tests for children at 12 and 24 months’ age. Bloodwork could identify early warnings of common effects of lead exposure such as brain, liver, or kidney damage, learning problems, hearing loss, seizures, and more.
The state lists common risk factors. Drinking water is not among them.
“We’ve found in those zip codes it’s not really water that’s driving this,” Rigler said.
Which raises the question of whether all this testing is even necessary.
“Parents are always concerned about the health and safety of their kids. Testing will help give them a piece of mind and help us figure out the baseline,” Rigler added.
“The whole purpose of this study is to identify sources of lead in our water. We want to make sure that when children go to school there is not incremental exposure,” he said.
“After the national media started focusing on Flint, Michigan, we started asking ourselves if we had any problem water in Arizona and in our public schools,” he said. “We won’t know if it was an overreaction until we finish.”
Schools don’t think it was an overreaction. Creighton and Alhambra school districts wanted to find out early.
“We wanted to step to the front of the line,” Mann said. “We have some facilities that are very old. They are facilities we would have liked to have changed before now.”
“We wanted to assure all our parents that our facilities were safe and, if not, we wanted to know about it,” Jeffries said.
But the state will know by the end of June what the landscape looks like. Some states mandate testing by give schools three years to complete them, ADEQ said.
“I like that we are in a state that asks questions before we make laws,” he said.
As a parent of young children, Cabrera said he understands the concerns of parents, but said they should pay more attention to riskier sources of lead.
And if his children attended Creighton Elementary?
“I would look to see if there were outward signs of exposure. If there were, then, yes, I’d get blood work. If not, I wouldn’t,” he said.