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Lead testing in District 833 schools prompts some water shut-offs

concentrations of lead exceeded federal guidelines.

Test results, posted last week on the district website, flagged sinks, kitchen sprayers, kitchen kettles and at least six drinking fountains, including schools in Woodbury and Cottage Grove.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends that action be taken if water used for consumption in schools exceeds 20 parts per billion (ppb) of lead.

The district began testing in September after an investigation by KSTP-TV revealed that they had not conducted comprehensive lead water testing since 2000.

Of the 1,737 water sources in the district, 5 percent exceeded the 20 ppb threshold, Communications Director Barb Brown said.

Superintendent Keith Jacobus said they will implement a three-year testing cycle for lead levels instead of the recommended five-year cycle. The district will replace most of the 95 fixtures, including any that process water for cooking or drinking. The remainder will be taken out of service, he said.

“I was pleased with the swift steps we took at the beginning of the process in the fall with the flushing protocol and instituting the testing,” he said.

Overall, the latest results showed a reduction in the number of fixtures with concerning levels of lead, compared to the last comprehensive testing in 2000, Jacobus said.

“If you compare the last round of testing with this, we had significantly fewer fixtures that showed any levels that were above the acceptable levels,” Jacobus said.

Lead concerns

Children are especially susceptible to lead, a lethal toxin that can often lurk in older schools with lead water pipes or copper pipes that were installed using lead solder. Brass fixtures in older model faucets and drinking fountains can also contain lead.

Levels varied throughout the district. For instance, a drinking fountain at Armstrong Elementary tested at 146 ppb, the highest level of any drinking fountain tested. Woodbury Middle had four drinking fountains that exceeded federal guidelines, including one identified as outside the library that had lead levels of 44.7 ppb.

Damien Nelson, emergency preparedness and safety coordinator for the district, said each fixture with unacceptable levels of lead would be either be permanently taken off-line, replaced or flushed and tested.

“Typically what we have been finding is that locations that … were significantly higher turned out to be locations that were very infrequently used, if at all,” Nelson said.

For example, a fixture located in “sink room #106” at Pine Hill Elementary School tested at 522 ppb for lead.

Nelson said fixtures that exceeded recommended lead levels were shut down as they were identified through preliminary results.

“It wouldn’t necessarily happen the same day you got the results,” he said.

The mention of lead in water pipes is likely to spur recollections of the catastrophic lead contamination crisis in Flint, Mich. Michelle Witte of Woodbury, a South Washington County School Board member, conceded as much but advised the public to keep things in perspective.

“I didn’t see anything in the report that gave me personally cause for any great concern,” she said. “We’re taking direction from the administration on what the best steps are. I feel very confident that Damien and our administration have a good process in place for analyzing the information and putting new best practices in place.”

Testing in the district was conducted by the Institute of Environmental Assessment at a cost of $43,600. Technicians took samples at 1,737 sources in all schools as well as the District Service Center and the District Program Center.

‘Worst-case’ approach

Testing was conducted using the “worst-case scenario” approach, when water that supplied drinking faucets, sprayers and drinking fountains had been sitting for eight hours or more. Lead levels were likely to be the highest in these “first-draw” samples.

Amy Satterfield, business development director for IEA, said the only way to ensure acceptable levels of lead is to conduct periodic testing.

“Something will be fine one sample cycle then, three, five, 10 years later, it will be high,” she said.

“It could be something random with that plumbing system or wearing on that fixture or exposing solder points on the brass.”

Anna Schliep, a compliance engineer for the Minnesota Department of Health, was not involved in the testing but reviewed the District 833 test results online.

“If you look for lead, especially using the worst-case scenario protocol that we ask schools to to use, you’re going to find it,” she said. “They’re looking for that first draw of water that’s been sitting there for a long period of time.”

Schlieb said she hopes the issue of lead in schools will spur people to buy kits to test for lead where they live — it can lurk in paint, soil or the kitchen faucet.

“If you’re concerned about lead in your school you should also be concerned about it in your home,” she said.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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