Lead found in water at some Vermont schools

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A state project to test for lead in the water of selected Vermont schools has found that about half the schools for which the results have come in have at least a few taps and faucets that exceed state and federal limits.

Three state agencies working together — the Department of Health, Department of Environmental Conservation and the Agency of Education — announced the testing initiative last fall with a release that said "Unless you test for it, there's no way of knowing if lead is in drinking water."

"We don't know what is out there in those schools. We don't know exactly what the level of exposure is," said Ben Montross, chief of compliance for the DEC.

The state chose 16 schools around the state for the pilot project, which targeted schools in older buildings with water from a public source, such as a municipal water system. The state provided each of the schools with testing supplies, and conducted the water analysis. Schools found to have elevated lead levels will get additional help, with mitigation and follow-up testing.

The results, so far, are mixed. Among the state's findings are that four of the eight schools for which results have come in, have indications of elevated levels of lead in one or more faucet or drinking fountain, but it is not widespread. At Castleton Elementary School, for example, water from five water sources — fountains and faucets — was found to have lead levels in excess of the federal limit of 15 parts per billion. Vermont regulations are more stringent, with a maximum allowable lead level of 1 ppb in water.

Two schools, Enosburg Falls Elementary and Cabot Schools, had several faucets and fountains near the federal limit and well over the Vermont limit. Most of the water sources at Academy School in Brattleboro, were generally in line with state and federal limits except for one fountain; the water from which was well in excess even of federal limits.

Vermont schools that get their water from public sources, such as municipal water systems, have not had a practice of testing their water for lead because municipalities already are required to do so by law. Only schools that rely on well water, and have an enrollment of at least 25 students, are required to test their water — the wells are regarded by the state as public water sources — but the tests have not been comprehensive, involving only a few taps and fountains. About 150 rural Vermont schools get their water from wells.

Even when water from public systems contains acceptably low levels of lead, lead can still accumulate in drinking water if the building has old pipes and plumbing fixtures. Among the health department's concerns has been that many Vermont schools are in older buildings, and have older plumbing often containing lead. When schools are not in session, over weekends, holidays and the summer break, water sitting in old pipes and plumbing absorbs the lead.

Exposure to lead is a particular problem for children, who absorb it more easily than adults. Elevated lead levels can slow down growth, development, and learning and can cause behavior problems. While a major source of lead poisoning in Vermont children is paint, lead in older plumbing, pipes and fixtures can add to a child's overall lead exposure, according to health department publications.

Other states that have started lead testing have found alarming levels in schools, said Michelle Thompson, a Vermont health department hygienist. Testing of the water in schools in New York City found that 83 percent of the schools had at least one tap that produced water containing more than 15 ppb of lead, she said. "We wanted to look at Vermont schools that don't already test, those on a public water system, and get an idea of where we stand here in Vermont."

Montross said he was told by cohorts in Massachusetts to expect that at least one tap in every school would have a reading that would be too high. He said he was pleased that levels in Vermont schools have so far been comparatively low.

Thompson said that while it's good news that levels are not as high as they had expected, nor as widespread among schools, it is important to remember, "there is no safe level of lead in the water."

Vermont's new licensing regulations for day care and early education require child care centers to test for lead. There is no requirement for schools, but Thompson said she would encourage all schools to test all of their taps and fountains.

It has long been assumed that lead from paint in older houses is a more dangerous source of exposure for young children, but as standards have change and protections increased, the focus, increasingly, has been on water, said Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health at the University of British Columbia.

"Lead in water from lead-service lines and school fountains is becoming more important," he said. The federal standard of 15 ppb of lead in water was not meant to be a health-based standard, he said. Schools should aim for less than 5 ppb, he said.

"Although a child's blood lead levels won't change appreciably from ingesting one or two mouthfuls of lead-contaminated water, chronic ingestion of water containing lead is an important source of lead intake for students and teachers," he said.

Lanphear said he would recommend repairing or dismantling fountains or faucets producing more than 5 pbb of lead. The practice of flushing the lead from the system by running the tap is not enough, he said.

Thompson said the health department is recommending flushing taps — running water for 30 seconds at least twice a day — as a short term solution. Blocking or dismantling the fountains is preferable, she said, and in the long term, taps and other fixtures must be replaced.

Thompson said it's fortunate that "in the 16 sites, we haven't been finding the building plumbing to be an issue. It has been the fixtures and those are really easy and low cost fixes for schools."

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