An honors project by a high school student led to the discovery of lead in the water at the Boothbay-Boothbay Harbor Community School District. The district confirmed the student’s findings with additional tests and has warned students and staff not to drink or cook with the water. The schools are using bottled water and water coolers.
Junior Lilly Sherburne noticed that the water tasted bad and, after reading news coverage about contaminated water at some schools, made testing the school water her “Champions of Change” project. Sherburne couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
As part of Sherburne’s project, school officials sent 20 samples to be tested by a private lab. When the results came back March 30, five of the samples exceeded Environmental Protection Agency water quality standards.
That got the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention involved, resulting in more testing and the discovery of elevated lead levels in at least 27 locations at the Boothbay Region Elementary School and the Boothbay Region High School.
Shawn Carlson, Boothbay’s assistant superintendent, said that because lead doesn’t have a taste, the original reason for testing the water was a coincidence.
“It was happenstance, but a fortunate happenstance,” Carlson said Friday.
He said there’s no indication that any students have fallen ill from the lead being in the water, but lead exposure can stunt brain development in children and damage the nervous system or kidneys, among other health problems, according to the World Health Organization.
Maine schools that are on wells must routinely have the school water tested, but those receiving water from a municipal supply are not required to do so because the utility monitors water quality elsewhere in the overall system. However, this doesn’t account for the lead that can leach into water from old pipes or solder on plumbing fixtures.
The Maine CDC has been encouraging school districts to test their water – especially after the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan – but many schools have yet to do so. The state has been sending free testing kits to schools.
Out of several hundred schools tested in 2016, only a handful, including Yarmouth and Benton, had high lead levels. Most districts resolved the problem with low-cost fixes such as replacing water faucets or bypassing old pipes.
The lab test results for Boothbay, posted on the district’s website, showed widely varying lead levels in water samples. The tests found that 46 samples from classroom sinks, fountains and bathrooms in the high school and elementary school had lead levels below the EPA standard of 20 micrograms per liter of water.
But 27 other samples exceeded the EPA standard – with concentrations as high as 1,100 micrograms per liter at one sink at Boothbay Region Elementary School.
Carlson said Boothbay schools receive municipal water, which undergoes regular testing, so it’s likely that the water is somehow picking up lead in the pipes or fixtures within the school. Carlson said Dirigo Engineering Group will conduct more testing next week, while students are on vacation, to try to find the source of the problem.
The high school was built in 1954, while the elementary school was built in 1977.
Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, has proposed a bill that would require school districts to conduct water-safety testing.
Millett said lawmakers are still looking at how to pay for fixing any problems that might be found, especially at schools that need extensive repairs.
“The cost of not addressing this will be much larger than the cost of addressing it now,” Millett said. “I do think there’s a significant amount of concern, and people want to see the problem addressed, because we are talking about the safety of students. The tougher part of the conversation is how to fund this.”
Millett said a law is needed because many districts are still not testing.
“Even with all the publicity recently it’s discouraging more districts aren’t being more proactive,” Millett said.
Superintendent Eileen King said in a letter posted to the district’s website Thursday that “We understand how concerning the reports of lead in our school drinking water can be for parents, staff and community members. We are concerned as well and have been in touch with all recommended authorities continuously since March 30.”
King said the district, which has about 600 students, is conducting additional tests on fixtures with the highest lead levels at the request of Maine CDC. She said school officials will hold an informational meeting for parents and community members after vacation.
Correction: This story was updated at 10:17 a.m. on April 15 to correct the number of samples the school sent for testing.
Joe Lawlor can be reached at 791-6376 or at: