The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say “there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood.” Effects of lead poisoning include developmental delays, memory loss and brain damage.
The discovery of lead in drinking water in Portland public schools so soon after the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, ignited alarm in schools across the state of Oregon, including those in Lane County.
Kerry Delf, associate director for communications for Eugene School District 4J, says that after tests this spring showed excessive levels of lead at the district office and three schools — Sheldon High School and Roosevelt and Kennedy middle schools — 4J has hired PBS Environmental + Engineering to test all water faucets used for drinking and making food district-wide.
4J last tested its drinking water for lead in 1998, Delf says, when it found and fixed the locations “where water samples were identified for concern.” Those same locations were tested this year.
Delf says the district-wide tests will cost an estimated $25,000 or more, and the money will come from 4J’s general fund, with no state dollars yet available to help.
The Oregon Health Authority (OHA), which oversees many state health care programs, has never required school districts to collect water quality data unless they use a well, and Oregon school drinking water has not regularly been tested by the districts themselves. OHA is currently discussing guidelines or standards for school districts to follow.
“Think about how disturbing it is that the goal of sending children to school is to educate them to be productive members of society, and lead is a barrier to that,” says Lisa Arkin, executive director of the environmental justice nonprofit Beyond Toxics.
For public water supplies, the EPA recommends acting on lead levels of more than 15 parts per billion (ppb). For schools, since testing protocol differs, the action level is 20 ppb. The district sampled each fixture twice, once after the water sat overnight and again after flushing water through the system.
The highest lead levels — 866 ppb and 521 ppb — were found at a Roosevelt fountain, which is being demolished, and at Sheldon. After being flushed with water, most fixtures registered below the EPA’s action level, but three were still above that level.
PBS Environmental + Engineering will retest the buildings already tested by the district.
Joel Iboa, environmental justice and community outreach manager for Beyond Toxics, says he’s concerned that kids in low-income communities might be at greater risk because they are more likely to live in older homes where lead is already an issue. Malnourishment also worsens the effects of lead poisoning.
“I don’t think schools should be blamed,” Arkin says. “They didn’t have guidance and they don’t have the budget that allows them to deal with this problem.”
Delf says testing is underway, and once complete, the district will release the test results and determine the lead source. Delf says that based on the results of the preliminary testing, fixtures like faucets and sinks are most likely to blame for the presence of lead, in which case the district will replace fixtures and test again. If the problem is not resolved, the district will need to take further action.
“The follow-up to the testing will be important,” Iboa says.
Springfield and Bethel districts are also testing school drinking water. Until testing is complete, it’s unclear how much repairs will cost the districts.
Keep up with 4J’s progress at 4j.lane.edu/water, and learn more about lead poisoning at epa.gov.