State officials have asked Utah’s public schools to test their drinking water for lead contamination — preferably before Labor Day — after spot tests over the summer found high levels of lead at several schools.
Of the 188 schools sampled this spring and summer, drinking water at 10 schools contained lead concentrations that exceeded guidelines established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, set at 15 micrograms per liter.
Nearly half of the tested schools showed some levels of lead, between one and 15 micrograms per liter, state results show.
Overall, water collected from the 188 schools was nearly twice as likely to exceed the EPA’s thresholds compared to more routine samples collected from homes, prompting state officials to recommend testing for all Utah schools.
“These results show that we should look,” said Marie Owens, director of the state Division of Drinking Water. “Children are a vulnerable population, and they’re at school longer than they are at home, so we should look.”
Exposure to lead can cause developmental delays in young children. Most lead exposure occurs in the home and is associated with lead-based paint, according to the EPA, but drinking water can become contaminated with lead when the metal leaches out of old pipes and plumbing fixtures.
The EPA does not consider any level of lead in drinking water to be safe, but does not require remedial action until the water is found to contain more than 15 micrograms of lead per liter, due in part to technical difficulties of eliminating all lead from drinking water in some situations.
Lead in the water: What Utahns should know about their homes.
Using lead in drinking-water pipes was permitted prior to 1986. According a 2011 seismic risk survey, more than half of Utah’s schools were built before to 1975 — a decade before the Safe Drinking Water Act went into effect.
Despite the relative age of school buildings, their drinking water systems are tested only sporadically. Federal regulations focus on residential testing, meaning that contamination isolated within a school building can go undetected.
Owens said the state Division of Drinking Water began contacting area schools about the need for water-quality tests last spring, after recommendations from the EPA that all U.S. schools be tested. State regulators began with schools located on or near the Wasatch Front because their location made coordinating with district officials more convenient, Owens said.
But based on the disproportionate number of schools with high levels of lead in their water, the state has already begun contacting other districts statewide and is offering money in cases where tests might require school overhauls.
Though it hopes to test as many as 900 school statewide, the Division of Drinking Water has no legal authority to require the tests, Owens said. However, she said, the division is offering technical assistance with the sampling and testing requirements, and so far, none of the schools asked to participate have refused.
The Box Elder School District, which saw two schools with high lead test results — Bear River Middle School and Willard Elementary — launched the testing at the state’s urging, according to Jim Christensen, district director of facilities management. Unlike many other school districts, some Box Elder schools rely on private water sources that are already regularly tested for lead, but Christensen said the district welcomed the invitation to do additional tests, partly to be responsive and transparent about its facilities.
“We’ve tried to be proactive to make sure we are doing the right thing for the life of the buildings, and for the cleanliness of the water for the students,” Christensen said.
Seven of the ten schools that have exceeded the federal limit so far are located in the Granite School District, one of the first to agree to conduct the tests. They were Beehive Elementary; Calvin S. Elementary; Gerald Wright Elementary; Granite Technical Institute; Magna Elementary; Silver Hills Elementary; and William Penn Elementary.
District spokesman Ben Horsley said parents should rest assured that the problems have been or will be addressed before school starts next week. The district also plans to pursue a bond this fall in order to fund a large-scale remodeling effort, he said.
Granite school officials were quick to sign on with the testing initiative when it was first proposed, Horsley said, partly because they had already begun testing their drinking water as part of a broader effort to evaluate conditions of the district’s school buildings.
“We have some of the oldest buildings on average in the state, which means older piping systems and older faucets that tend to lend themselves to a variety of issues,” Horsley said. “Over half of our buildings are over 50 years old, and frankly that is where you see a lot of those kinds of issues.”
According to the state’s database, Granite school district flushed out the pipes at all seven facilities with high lead results and those schools have since tested below the 15 microgram per liter limit. Flushing out the system is an effective but temporary remedy, Owens said.
“The ones that have flushed so that it’s safe for students to go back to school, we’re not done with that yet,” she said. “Flushing is not a long-term solution. Flushing the building can make it safe to use right away, but that doesn’t mean that the next long weekend or holiday isn’t going to bring the situation right back.”
At North Summit Elementary, which had one test result come back above the EPA’s standard, a single sink was identified as the source of the problem. The plumbing beneath the utility sink was replaced, and subsequent tests confirmed that eliminated the lead problems, said North Summit School District superintendent Jerre Holmes.
Check your school’s drinking water test results on the Division of Drinking Water’s public database.
Holmes said participating in the tests, and mitigating problem the results identify, was the obvious approach.
“I get that there could be a concern that it could be a costly fix, depending on the worst case scenario,” Holmes said, “but any time there’s a chance to make your buildings a better place, I think we should all be diligent.”
Schools with more building-wide lead problems may be forced to completely revamp their plumbing systems, leading the state to pledged support in the event lead testing calls for significant repairs.
Alan Matheson, executive director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, sent a letter to state superintendents last month in which he strongly urged each school to check for lead-contaminated water, and promised to back the districts up in exchange for participation.
“If you find elevated levels in the drinking water at your school that require significant resources to resolve, we will work with you to identify funding sources to correct the problem,” the letter stated. “The state will stand with you throughout this process. Protecting the health of our children and school staff is our top priority.”
Participating schools may also post their results at a public database the Division of Drinking Water has built to inform parents of the testing initiative’s progress.
However, the database only indicates whether those water tests came in above the EPA’s recommended maximum, not the actual concentration of lead in the school’s samples, even though nearly half of the samples submitted to the state contain between 1 and 15 micrograms of lead per liter of water.
“There is lead that naturally occurs in water,” Owens said. “To expect that there would be no lead in any water is unreasonable, and water degrades over time. The longer it’s in a distribution system, the longer it’s stagnant in a building — things can happen.”
Owens said they chose not to include specific test results in their database because they did not want to confuse or overwhelm the public. She said the division would willingly share more specific data with those who request it.
Parents need not panic if their child attends a school with a high test result, Owens added. If there are concerns about a child’s wellbeing, she urged parents to contact their pediatrician for further guidance.