2015 tests showed lead in one Tacoma school’s water more than 150 times allowable level

Tacoma Public Schools could not say Monday why tests showing high lead levels at Reed and Mann elementary schools were not shared with parents last year.
Tacoma Public Schools could not say Monday why tests showing high lead levels at Reed and Mann elementary schools were not shared with parents last year. Thinkstock photo

Lead levels found in Reed Elementary School’s drinking water last year — but not disclosed until Monday — were as high as 2,330 parts per billion, Tacoma School District officials said.

That is more than 150 times the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold for action, which is 15 ppb. The EPA classifies water with more than 5,000 ppb as hazardous waste.

Tacoma Public Schools could not say Monday why tests showing high lead levels at Reed and Mann elementary schools were not shared with parents last year.

“This issue caught us by surprise,” district spokesman Dan Voelpel said. “We’re all deeply concerned for our Reed and Mann school communities. We voluntarily put this water quality testing system in place expressly for that purpose — to help provide a safe school environment.”

As a result of the discovery, the district’s safety and environmental health manager was placed on paid administrative leave, Voelpel said. The district is now looking for a new industrial hygienist to help comb through and analyze years’ worth of testing records. And a testing contractor was to be at both schools early Tuesday morning to perform follow-up tests.

The district began voluntarily testing lead and other substances in elementary school water systems in 2012. Test reports from May 2015 showing high lead levels at the two South End schools were discovered Friday night when district officials began reviewing past results, following The News Tribune’s request for copies. The district review of test results is ongoing and has yet to rule out problems at other schools.

Voelpel said multiple locations at Mann and Reed were tested, including drinking fountains, classroom sinks, restroom sinks and food preparation areas. The lead levels uncovered at the two schools ranged from zero to 2,330 ppb.

Voelpel said 59 locations were tested at Reed. Of those, 30 came back above 20 ppb. Reed results ranged from a low of 5 ppb to a high of 2,330 ppb.

At Mann, 69 locations were tested. Of those, 23 locations tested over 20 ppb. Mann test results ranged from zero to 784 parts ppb, Voelpel said.

Voelpel said the district did not yet know the specific source of the tainted water at Reed and Mann, whose buildings date from the 1950s. Reed was modernized in 1987 and Mann in 2003.

The district took the following steps Monday at Mann and Reed:

▪ Re-tested water systems at both schools over the weekend. Results from Reed are expected Tuesday. Mann results could come Tuesday or Wednesday.

▪ Blocked access to drinking fountains.

▪ Ordered bottled water for staff and students to drink and use in food preparation until the district can fix any issues that are uncovered. Students and staff have been told it’s OK to wash dishes or hands, but not to drink the school water.

“We don’t know what it will take to fix the problem,” Voelpel said. The district planned to return Tuesday morning before school to collect more water samples at both schools.

He said officials were investigating how the high-lead reports could have been overlooked. The district also will conduct a complete audit of all past water quality tests, but he said he was not sure how long that would take.

Superintendent Carla Santorno also asked for a plan to test water at all district schools.

“We are still looking at records,” Voelpel said. “These (the results from Mann and Reed) were things demanding immediate attention, so we are giving it immediate attention. If we uncover anything else, we will let those school communities know.”

Voelpel said that Tacoma voluntarily tests the water in some of its elementary schools each year, but he couldn’t say whether all had been tested yet. He said testing has not been conducted in the past in Tacoma middle or high schools, but that those schools will be included moving forward.

Water at Mann and Reed is being re-tested

Outside Reed Elementary on Monday afternoon, one mother of a third-grade boy said she had no idea about the problem until approached by a News Tribune reporter.

“How could this happen? Lead is an incredibly dangerous element,” Jamia Parker said. “I doubt the school district ‘overlooked’ it. … They probably just didn’t want to take the time to handle this responsibly.”

Another mother, Licelda Andres, who also lives in the neighborhood, said she did receive an email Monday but that the school didn’t seem to be taking the problem very seriously.

“I was really shocked,” she said. “They should have asked us to send bottled water, and in fact they should probably have already had the kids on bottled water.”

Andres said she believes Tacoma water is questionable. She said she drinks the tap water at her home but is now worried about it, since she lives near the school.

On the school district Facebook page, parents questioned why the district failed to report the results sooner and asked for a copy of the test report. One parent complained that teachers were restricting bottled water distribution in her students’ classes at Mann. Officials said students are allowed as many bottles of water as they need and promised to follow up on the parent’s complaint.

A state health department rule proposed in 2008 required testing of school drinking water for lead, as well as testing for other environmental hazards such as mold. But state lawmakers in 2009 said the rule could not be implemented until they found the money to pay for it. To date, that funding has not been approved, according to state health officials.

“A lot of schools are interested in testing, and there’s been some communication from some water systems offering to help,” said Mike Means of the state Department of Health office of drinking water. But for now, he said, testing for lead in school drinking water remains voluntary.

Young children face the greatest dangers from the cumulative effects of lead consumption, according to the World Health Organization. It can affect the brain, liver, kidneys and bones.

Health officials say there is no safe level of lead consumption for children. They advise parents who are concerned to consult their pediatricians.

Tacoma Public Schools officials say they are investigating how the high-lead reports could have been overlooked

Experts say that most lead poisoning in American children comes from lead paint used in older homes. (Lead paint was banned for residential structures in 1978, so only homes built before then are likely to have lead paint.)

Young children can consume lead from paint if they chew painted surfaces. They might also pick up lead in dust from peeling or chipped paint or from home remodeling.

And in Tacoma and environs, the old Asarco smelter — which produced lead as a byproduct — contaminated the soil with lead.

After high levels of lead were discovered in drinking water in Flint, Michigan, national attention has focused on water as a source of lead consumption.

Renewed concerns about lead in Tacoma drinking water surfaced last week after Tacoma Water officials announced that they had found high levels of it in water lines leading to four homes near Lincoln High School.

Some of the home samples tested above 100 parts per billion; the Environmental Protection Agency requires action be taken if lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion.

The water utility is particularly concerned about so-called “gooseneck” pipe connections — bent piping that allowed for flexible connections between water mains and service lines that run to the meters of homes and other structures. The connectors were used in the city between 1900 and 1940, according to Tacoma Water.

About 30,000 of the connectors have already been removed by the utility, but up to 1,700 may remain, officials said. Last week, utility officials reported that no gooseneck connections remained at public schools in Tacoma.

Lead in drinking water can also stem from old plumbing fixtures inside a building. That was the case in February, when routine testing found two schools in the Peninsula School District with high lead levels. Testing pinpointed the problems: a drinking fountain at Kopachuck Middle School and a sink in an office at Voyager Elementary School as the sources.

The district replaced the faulty fixtures, and district officials reported that the replacements appeared to have fixed the problem.

Still, ongoing water testing will continue at the Peninsula schools.

News Tribune reporters Kate Martin, Natalie DeFord and Melissa Santos contributed to this report.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo