Elevated levels of lead found in water at two Yarmouth schools show the need for broader testing of drinking water in schools statewide, an environmental health advocate said Thursday.
Yarmouth school officials this week announced that voluntary tests in the district’s two oldest school buildings showed lead levels that exceed Environmental Protection Agency standards. Those tests – at Yarmouth Elementary and Harrison Middle schools – were the first done in the district in 25 years.
It’s unknown how long the town’s school children have been exposed to the elevated lead levels. A total of about 800 children attend the two schools.
The state’s public health information officer said that although no lead exposure is safe and corrective action is needed, the levels found in Yarmouth are not cause for alarm.
But a Portland-based health advocate said the findings are alarming, and suggested that children in many other schools may be exposed to the toxin without anyone knowing that it’s happening.
“This demonstrates that children across Maine and across the country are exposed to contaminants that affect their brain development,” said Emma Halas-O’Connor, the campaign manager for Environmental Health Strategy Center, a Maine-based organization that advocates nationally for the elimination of toxic chemicals.
“It really speaks to the need for statewide, school-by-school testing, not just for the water source, but for the water coming out of the taps,” Halas-O’Connor said. “We know lots of schools have lead in their pipes.”
The state requires 240 Maine schools that get their water directly from wells to test for lead and copper at least once every three years. But 521 schools on public water supplies – including Yarmouth – have no regulatory requirement to do the same testing.
Schools on well water have been considered at higher risk because well water can be more corrosive and draw lead out of aging pipes and fixtures. The Yarmouth tests show that schools on public water supplies also might be at risk, especially since the Yarmouth Water District draws its water from wells.
Yarmouth officials didn’t test water at the Rowe School, which serves kindergarten and first-grade students, or at Yarmouth High School because they are newer buildings, but they plan to test and monitor water in those buildings going forward.
Four other Maine schools – Dedham Elementary, Somerville Elementary, Standish Baptist Church School and Carmel Elementary School – are known to have elevated lead levels and are working to address the issue, state officials said.
NO COMPREHENSIVE TESTING IN STATE
The lack of across-the-board testing in Maine schools is not unusual. The New York Legislature this year passed a bill requiring all school districts to test water for lead contamination, becoming the first state in the country to approve such sweeping testing requirements.
Though health officials have long warned of dangers of lead poisoning, the issue was thrust into the public spotlight by the recent lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan. Residents there are grappling with a public health crisis created by the decision to switch to a cheaper but more corrosive water source that caused lead to seep from the city’s pipes into the water supply.
The EPA requires action to remove lead from drinking water when it reaches 15 parts per billion, but the agency also says there is no safe level of lead exposure. Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can cause learning and developmental disabilities, behavioral problems and a host of physical ailments.
The Yarmouth Water District, which serves about 3,000 ratepayers in Yarmouth and North Yarmouth, draws water from four wells in North Yarmouth. The water is tested regularly for contaminants and meets federal drinking water standards without regular chlorination. However, according to the district’s Consumer Confidence Report for 2015, the lead level in Yarmouth’s water is 13.1 ppb – lower than the 15 ppb federal action trigger, but high enough that customers are urged to take steps to minimize potential lead exposure.
“When your water has been sitting for several hours, (flush) your tap for 30 seconds to 2 minutes before using water for drinking or cooking,” advises the report, which is posted on the district’s website. “If you are concerned about lead in your water, you may wish to have your water tested.”
Yarmouth Superintendent Andrew Dolloff notified parents via email Wednesday that tests at two school showed lead levels above 15 ppb. The testing did not find elevated levels of copper, another toxin of concern to schools.
Dolloff, who came to the district in 2014, ordered the water tests after discovering that the district had not examined its drinking water in more than two decades, and after hearing about the lead crisis in Flint and elevated levels in Maine schools.
“Notices such as this can understandably cause alarm, but we are communicating and taking action with an abundance of caution,” Dolloff said in the email to parents.
LEAD LEVELS NOT OVERLY EXCESSIVE
On Thursday, Dolloff said water tests from three drinking fountains and nine faucets at Yarmouth Elementary School showed lead levels above the 15 ppb EPA threshold. The school has about 300 students.
The fountains had levels of 15.4 ppb, 22 ppb and 24.2 ppb. The faucets in the district’s oldest school building had lead levels ranging from 17.7 ppb to 64.6 ppb.
At Harrison Middle School, which has about 500 students, none of the drinking stations – water fountains and bottle filling stations – had lead levels that required action. However, fountains used for hand washing and science experiments had levels ranging from 16.7 ppb to 46.3 ppb, Dolloff said.
None of the water samples taken from sinks used for food preparation at either school contained lead at or above the federal standard, Dolloff said. No unsafe levels of copper were detected at either school.
While the district is acting immediately to provide safe water to its students, the levels found in Yarmouth are far from the highest seen in Maine schools. Tests in some rural schools have found hundreds of parts per billion in the water supplies, including one pre-2015 sample in Waterboro-based MSAD 57 that registered 635 ppb.
John Martins, public health information officer for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said state officials analyzed the Yarmouth lead levels and determined they would not likely have caused children to accumulate enough lead in their bloodstreams to have reached an elevated blood level under federal guidelines.
“While it is certainly best to avoid unnecessary exposure to lead because no level of lead exposure is safe, parents should not be overly alarmed by these numbers,” Martins said.
“It’s cause for alarm even if we find 15 parts per billion,” she said. “A level of 64.6 is very concerning.”
Dolloff believes the higher lead levels at the elementary and middle schools came from older faucets that have not been replaced since they were installed. He said it is likely that the solder in the pipes has become corroded, leading to the elevated levels.
While schools such as Yarmouth’s with public water supplies are not required to test for lead, Martins said a growing number of those school districts are conducting voluntary tests, though he could not provide an exact number for those doing so.
Schools that find elevated lead levels must notify parents and staff members about the findings and provide “public education” about lead. Further tests are then done on the water to help determine a corrosion control plan because most lead in drinking water comes from the heavy metal seeping out of old pipes, faucet fixtures or lead-based solder.
Schools must correct the problem, whether by simply shutting off problematic water fountains or replacing plumbing. Schools must then test the water every six months until two consecutive tests come back with lead below 15 ppb.
ACTION TAKEN IN YARMOUTH SCHOOLS
Dolloff already has begun taking those steps in Yarmouth.
By the end of Friday, 5-gallon bottled water dispensers will be installed in each classroom at the elementary school. Students and staff will be told not to drink from fountains until they have been replaced and follow-up testing shows the water is safe to consume, Dolloff said.
The district also is replacing faucets at hand-washing stations in both schools that tested higher than the EPA standard.
Once school is back in session and the water flow is more consistent, water from those faucets and fountains will be retested, he said.
The district will then analyze the results from those tests to determine if more faucets need to be replaced. Dolloff said parents will be updated on the results and action plan as information is available.
Dolloff also has directed staff to facilitate sampling at Rowe School and Yarmouth High School.
“Although those buildings are newer and are not considered likely candidates for elevated levels of trace elements, we believe it is worth the effort to ensure that our water is as safe as possible,” he said. “This is an issue that we are addressing as rapidly as possible.”
Tim Shannon, a founder of Yes for Yarmouth, praised school officials for their proactive approach.
“The school system is extremely well run by very professional people,” Shannon said. “Our facilities have some very old infrastructure like many other districts and I’m glad we are addressing it.”
Given the results in Yarmouth, Shannon said, other school districts on municipal water supplies should be required to test their water, too.
Halas-O’Connor, of Environmental Health Strategy Center, also praised Yarmouth for testing its water and taking action to immediately stop lead exposure. “If more schools were testing and more communities knew what was in the water,” she said, “we’d see more of this type of proactive action.”
Dolloff will provide the Yarmouth School Committee with updated information at its regular meeting at 7 p.m. next Thursday at the Log Cabin on Main Street.
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.