Water from drinking fountains and sink faucets in more than a dozen local school buildings were found to have elevated levels of lead in the past two years, leading local school districts to replace some water infrastructure.
The Bellbrook, Lakota and Northeastern school districts had water from multiple plumbing fixtures test above the federal limit, as did St. Charles Borromeo School in Kettering, according to the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission (OFCC) and school testing records reviewed by this newspaper.
The Miami Valley Career Technology Center and Mother Brunner Catholic School in Trotwood each had one fixture test above the EPA “lead action level” of 15 parts per billion.
A plumbing fixture can be a sink faucet, drinking fountain or water cooler. After the Flint, Mich., water crisis, the OFCC managed a $12 million state grant program that reimbursed Ohio schools for testing and replacing lead-affected plumbing fixtures in schools built before 1990, where the risk is higher. About one in every 10 schools tested statewide had at least one fixture over the EPA’s action level.
“We had to get the water safe for kids and adults. That’s the bottom line,” said Bellbrook schools’ Interim Superintendent Jeff Lewis. “Even if we spent some district money, at least we can rest at night knowing that our water is good.”
Ellis Jacobs, a Dayton attorney at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, which has studied the lead issue, said his biggest concern is that many schools haven’t tested for lead in water at all.
Beavercreek, Springboro, Franklin and West Carrollton are among the school districts that told this newspaper they’ve done no testing, while Kettering has not tested since renovations were completed close to 15 years ago.
“Ingesting lead affects neurological development,” said Tom Hut, who oversees the childhood lead poisoning prevention program for Public Health Dayton and Montgomery County. “It’s been proven that learning disabilities and lower IQ are associated with lead exposure at very low levels. The higher the blood lead level, the greater the health impact.”
Federal and state law do not require most schools to test for lead in water. But Hut said Public Health would encourage all schools to test. He said certified testing costs about $12 per faucet or other water source.
Multiple local school districts, including Kettering, Vandalia-Butler, Franklin and Miamisburg, said they are now looking into testing their water in 2018.
“There was a flurry of activity between us last week when you asked for the public records,” Kettering schools Business Manager Ken Lackey said.
Over the limit
** Bellbrook: Stephen Bell Elementary had 20 water sources test over the EPA limit for lead, the highest number of any local school in the OFCC program. Almost all of those 20 tested between 15 and 30 parts per billion, while another dozen fixtures at Stephen Bell tested just below the standard, falling between 12 and 15 parts per billion, according to reports from Dayton Environmental Testing LLC.
For each case over the limit, the school district replaced the plumbing fixture in question and then retested, according to the contractor. Sinks in one classroom and two teacher work rooms were still over the limit after replacement, so the district paid to add filtration devices that solved the problem.
However, four sinks in Classroom A21 still tested above the lead limit even after filtration was added.
“They’re all in this old art room that’s now used for storage,” Lewis said. “If it ever gets to the point where they cause a risk, we’ll just pull them out. Right now they’re in areas where no one’s using them.”
Bellbrook had a similar unresolved issue with four of the seven elevated tests at the Sugarcreek Education Center, which now serves as the school board office building. Lewis said the kitchen and stage area where those four sinks are located has been unused for years. The three sources that tested high at Bell Creek Intermediate school were all replaced successfully.
** Lakota: Seven fixtures tested too high across five Lakota elementary and early-childhood schools – Shawnee, Adena, Creekside, Freedom and Hopewell – and all were replaced. One fixture at Freedom Elementary was 52 times higher than the federal limit, at 790 parts per billion, according to the testing documents. Another at Adena was 11 times the EPA limit.
Chris Passarge, chief operations officer for the school district, said Lakota did not do follow-up testing on those that were replaced.
“We replaced anything that had a positive reading regardless of (whether it was over the federal limit),” Passarge said, pointing to OFCC data showing that Lakota replaced 23 fixtures. “In most cases (it was) the sink in the classroom. We had a couple of sinks in the café at Freedom, Liberty Jr. and Creekside.”
** St. Charles Borromeo: Of the 75 water sources tested for lead at the Kettering Catholic school, 19 of them were above the EPA “lead action level” of 15 parts per billion, and all were replaced, according to the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission. School marketing officials directed questions to Business Manager Steve Morris, but Morris said he was “unable to comment” on the lead abatement project.
** Northeastern: Four water sources at Northeastern High School – from a classroom, a science lab, the library and a drinking fountain – tested over EPA limits in July and August, according to district documents. The drinking fountain was by far the worst, at almost 10 times the federal standard.
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The school disabled those four fixtures, provided bottled water for students and staff, and posted messages to the community on its website.
“NEHS will be implementing a corrosion program as well as a revised water system flushing program with the goal of reducing the amount of lead in their water,” the notice said. “Periodic water samples will be taken to monitor the water quality.”
Other schools, issues
Lead enters drinking water primarily as a result of corrosion in lead fixtures, service-line pipes and lead-based solder used to join pipes, according to the EPA. In 1986, Congress set limits on the amount of lead that could be used in faucets, pipes, solder and other plumbing materials.
Illinois and California have passed laws in the past year that require schools to test for lead in water. And recent tests showing high lead levels range from schools in San Francisco and Arizona to Ohio and Pennsylvania.
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The vast majority of local schools did not participate in the recent state-reimbursed testing – some because they were built after 1990 and therefore ineligible. Middletown, Tipp City and Fairborn were among the school districts that did test dozens of fixtures and found no elevated lead levels, according to OFCC data.
And some districts, including Oakwood, Mad River, Hamilton and Clark-Shawnee, did lead testing in some of their schools outside of the state program.
Stan Bochenek, buildings and grounds supervisor for Mad River schools, said his district tested six drinking fountains at its central office/preschool building, their only school built before 2004. They replaced one fountain that tested just over twice the federal lead limit.
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Kettering and Centerville schools did significant remodeling around the turn of the century, with Lackey saying Kettering replaced galvanized pipes with copper at the time, limiting lead risks. But the district will do testing this year. Centerville schools spokeswoman Sarah Swan said many of their schools have installed filtered water fountains in the past few years.
Hut, from public health, said most local cases of lead poisoning trace to ingestion of paint chips or dust, not contaminated water. But he said the high-profile Flint, Mich., case shows that it does happen.
“There is no safe level of lead in a child’s blood,” Hut said. “Those systems should be tested.”
This newspaper studied state data on school lead testing, then requested original documents from more than 20 local schools and districts to see how local students were affected.