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There’s still lead in water at schools in Whatcom County, new report shows. How worrisome is it?

WATCH: Mayo Clinic Minute - lead exposure risks for kids

Lead poisoning creates toxic effects for everyone, but it is especially harmful in children's growing bodies. In this Mayo Clinic Minute, Jeff Olsen talks with Dr. Laura Breeher about the most common sources of lead exposure in children and the ir
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Lead poisoning creates toxic effects for everyone, but it is especially harmful in children's growing bodies. In this Mayo Clinic Minute, Jeff Olsen talks with Dr. Laura Breeher about the most common sources of lead exposure in children and the ir

Traces of lead have been found in schools statewide, including ones in Whatcom County, according to a new report released Wednesday.

The report was conducted by advocacy group Environment Washington, using data from the Washington State Department of Health.

The report is one of the first that analyzes data of lead in school water after Gov. Jay Inslee signed a directive in 2016 to assist school districts in performing voluntary water quality tests with the Department of Health. The directive was in response to “raised public awareness of the importance of safe drinking water,” Inslee wrote.

More than 8,000 school water fixtures across Washington were analyzed. The report found that 60 percent had lead levels of at least 1 part per billion (ppb).

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends action be taken at 15 ppb for public water systems. For schools, that action level is 20 ppb, according to the Department of Health.

At 5,000 ppb, water is considered hazardous waste.

Even small traces of lead can be harmful, some say, particularly for children.

“According to the EPA, even low levels of lead can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity,” stated the report. “Lead exposure has even been linked to damaging children’s central and peripheral nervous systems.”

Of the 199 schools tested in the report, 97 percent of them had lead levels at 1 ppb or greater.

Which schools are affected?

Ten schools in Whatcom County have been tested.

According to Access Washington:

Blaine Elementary’s follow-up report from Nov. 1, 2018, found one result of 11 tests for lead at 17 ppb. The March 16, 2018, test at the school had found 16-23 ppb in seven of the 64 samples.

One of 66 samples tested Nov. 1, 2018, at Blaine Middle School had a result of 15 ppb.

Blaine Primary’s Nov. 1, 2018, follow-up found no issues in 10 samples tested, after an April 6, 2018, test found three of 70 had results between 15 ppb and 19 ppb.

Ferndale’s Central Elementary’s test found issues in three of 38 samples surveyed Feb. 7, 2018, with between 18 ppb and 35 ppb.

Ferndale Superintendent Linda Quinn said the district is proactive about testing drinking water and has independently tested every school in the district multiple times since 2016.

After the state testing in February, Ferndale “voluntarily replaced all fixtures at sites” that showed lead above 10 ppb, she said.

Bernice Vossbeck Elementary in Lynden was tested April 18, 2018, and none of 63 samples had a result in excess of less than 1 ppb.

Fisher Elementary in Lynden had one of 73 tests from April 11, 2018, showed lead at 18 ppb.

Isom Elementary School in Lynden had three of 63 tests from April 10, 2018, show lead in excess of 15 ppb. One each were at 16 ppb and 22 ppb. The kitchen pot filler was at 192 ppb.

Everson Elementary in the Nooksack Valley School District showed seven of 45 locations tested May 24, 2018, had lead in excess of 15 ppb. They were from 17 ppb to 51 ppb.

At Sumas Elementary, also in the Nooksack Valley district, six locations were tested May 24, 2018, and no sites showed lead in excess of 3 ppb. On Feb. 16, 2018, tests had found three of 34 samples with lead in excess of 15 ppb. One each were at 16 ppb and 17 ppb. A sink tap in room 205 was at 181 ppb.

Both schools were corrected immediately upon receiving the test results, according to Nooksack Valley Superintendent Mark Johnson.

Harmony Elementary in the Mount Baker School District was tested Feb. 14, 2018. Twelve of 43 tests found lead in excess of 15 ppb, in a range of 16 ppb to 32 ppb.

A January story in The Bellingham Herald reported the Washington State Department of Health found lead in multiple water fixtures used by students and staff for drinking and food preparation at the Mount Baker School District’s Deming Campus, including the junior high and high schools. The district said that it is working to replace each unit that showed lead in concentrations greater than or equal to 10 ppb.

Mount Baker Superintendent Mary Sewright told The Herald she updated parents in January with details about repairs and signage on water sources at the schools.

The district, Sewright said, has been in close communication with the Department of Health and it is “in support of everything we are doing and have acknowledged that we are going above and beyond what is required.”

When should action be taken?

Many districts consider their water to be safe to drink if it complies with the 15 ppb standard.

But when is it truly time to worry?

In an ideal world, there would be no traces of lead in water.

“We want these kids to not have lead in their environment, period,” said Lauren Jenks, director of Environmental Public Health Sciences for the state Department of Health.

However, there’s a history of lead use in tap manufacturing that makes it difficult to completely eradicate it, Jenks said. Still, schools are asked to take reasonable action for fixtures showing traces of lead.

Lead-contaminated water alone is not likely to elevate blood lead levels in most adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But risk varies, especially for children.

Children under 6 years old are the most susceptible to lead poisoning. Pregnant women also are susceptible.

“Even very low levels of lead in a child’s blood can affect IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement. The effects of lead exposure can’t be corrected,” according to the Department of Health.

Still, most lead poisoning doesn’t happen with contaminated drinking water but with lead-based paint.

A bill introduced to the 2019 Legislative Session by Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, would require school districts to act when 1 ppb lead levels are reported.

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