Wondering which big Colorado school districts are testing their water for lead?
posted by: Guest Blogger
According to education news website Chalkbeat, Colorado’s five largest school districts all have either embarked on or plan to test their schools’ drinking water for lead, taking no chances after the lead-poisoning crisis in Flint, Mich.
While Flint’s problems were caused by local officials’ negligence, the concern in Colorado and most other states involves a different threat – old lead service lines, pipes and fittings. Experts say the risk here is relatively low, but applaud the districts for being proactive.
In April, Douglas County School District was the first big Colorado district to begin testing. In June, Jeffco Public Schools launched a districtwide lead-testing campaign that is still in progress. Denver Public Schools joined the club last week, and Cherry Creek and Aurora are both crafting lead-testing plans to be carried out this school year.
So far, results are in for just two districts. In Douglas County, which only tested older schools, no buildings had lead levels above 15 parts per billion, a yardstick used by the Environmental Protection Agency. In Jeffco, which is testing all schools, nearly half have at least one water source with high lead levels so far. In some cases, it’s drinking fountains. In others, it’s mop sinks.
Colorado parents have no need to worry about a reprise of what happened in Flint. Problems there were caused by a switch in the city’s water source and officials who failed to add required chemicals to prevent lead from leaching into the water.
The issue here and in most states isn’t the quality of water as it leaves the water treatment plant and runs through water mains under city streets. Instead, it’s old lead service lines connecting to homes and schools or lead pipes and fittings inside buildings. A 1986 federal law banned lead in plumbing, but many schools and residences still have pipes or fixtures containing the toxic metal.
Experts in Colorado say infrastructure here is generally newer and carries less risk of lead poisoning from drinking water than say, pipes on the East Coast. Still, they laud the increased awareness about lead poisoning, which can severely hamper children’s physical and mental development.
“It’s good that school districts are thinking about this,” said Mark Anderson, a pediatrician at Denver Health. In the wake of what’s happened in Flint, they probably don’t have much choice.”
School districts aren’t required to test their water for lead unless they’re considered public water systems. That’s the case in some rural districts and on a limited basis in Jeffco, which provides water to six mountain schools.
Despite the spate of recent school testing efforts, Anderson and other doctors say that drinking water isn’t typically the culprit in lead poisoning cases.
The risk from filling a water bottle at school every day “would be extremely low,” he said.
Flaking lead paint is more likely to poison kids. Anderson said he’s also seen cases of high lead levels tied to lead-containing jewelry or candy brought in from other countries, stained glass work, shooting ranges and a backyard radiator recycling business.
In Jeffco, where lead results have come back high for about 70 schools, parents seem to be taking the news in stride.
Heidi Anderson, no relation to Mark Anderson, said she’s glad the district is doing something about it, but isn’t worried about her fourth-grade son’s health.
He’s been tested for lead previously during routine doctor check-ups and had normal results, Plus, she said, he and his older sister, now a seventh-grader at a different school, mostly avoided the drinking fountains at Hackberry Hill anyway.
“The water at that school tastes like dirt…so we’ve always made it a point to send them with water,” she said. “I guess that’s a silver lining to all this.”
Kay Slater, who has a kindergartener and sixth-grader at Dutch Creek Elementary where two water samples showed elevated lead levels, said many of Jeffco’s buildings are old and desperately need updates.
“This is a perfect example of why we need our bond campaign to happen,” she said, referring to the district’s plan to ask voters to approve a $568 million bond and mill levy override proposal, part of which would be used for building improvements.
The Denver and Aurora districts also have large bond proposals on the November ballot, with the possibility that some funds will be used to update plumbing.
Click here to find out the status of lead-testing efforts in Colorado’s five largest districts.
By Ann Schimke for Chalkbeat/Photo by Martina Yach/Creative Commons