The 16-year-old Boothbay high school student whose honors project uncovered high lead levels in the school district’s water said the project has given her a sense of power about bringing about change in a community.
Lilly Sherburne, 16, decided to look into the school’s drinking water for her “Champions of Change” project at Boothbay Region High School after discovering that 16 percent of Maine children do not have access to clean water, and becoming aware of people complaining about the taste of the water at the high school.
“I kind of noticed nobody was drinking it and I thought about getting new water fountains,” Sherburne, a junior, said Saturday.
So she tested the water, which comes from a municipal water source, and discovered that it had low pH levels. She also discovered that the school district had never tested the water. Maine schools with water from municipal sources are not required to test it because the utility monitors it, unlike school water from wells.
Sherburne brought up her concerns about the low pH with the maintenance staff. Tests showed elevated lead levels in at least 27 locations at the elementary and high schools. The bad taste of the water turned out to be unrelated.
Afterward, Sherburne said, “I was shocked. All of the water fountains had out-of-order signs.”
The school district is now working to fix the problem, which may stem from lead-leaking pipes or fixtures within the schools. Superintendent Eileen King said she will schedule an informational meeting on the problem after school vacation. School officials say there is no indication that any student has been sickened by the lead exposure, which can stunt brain development and cause neurological damage and other medical problems in children.
Meanwhile, the district has warned students and staff not to drink or cook with the water. Water coolers were installed at the schools and bottled water is being provided to the students and staff.
Sherburne said the whole experience has been empowering.
“I have brought about change, which is pretty amazing,” she said.
Sherburne is still working on her project, which is due in a few weeks.
She said the project has underscored her passion for public speaking, civil rights activism and general advocacy. She said she wants to go to college somewhere in Maine to study international relations or medicine.
She lives in Boothbay with her father, Bill, a lobsterman, and her brother, Noah, 18.
Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: