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Lead levels in water unknown at many Pennsylvania schools

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, April 7, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Photo illustration: Penn Hills Elementary School's kindergarteners Trent Donnell, 6, takes a drink out of a fountain as Octavia Haynes, 6, stands behind him on Thursday, April 7, 2016. Penn Hills Elementary School was built in 2013 and 2014, decades after lead was banned from use in pipes and solder. Newer schools are at far less risk for lead contamination than older schools.
Justin Merriman | Tribune Review
Photo illustration: Penn Hills Elementary School's kindergarteners Trent Donnell, 6, takes a drink out of a fountain as Octavia Haynes, 6, stands behind him on Thursday, April 7, 2016. Penn Hills Elementary School was built in 2013 and 2014, decades after lead was banned from use in pipes and solder. Newer schools are at far less risk for lead contamination than older schools.

Schools in Western Pennsylvania likely don't know whether the water coming out of hallway drinking fountains or used to prepare lunches has high levels of lead because they likely aren't testing for it.

Several districts said they don't worry about contamination because their schools don't have lead pipes or solder, from which lead can leach.

Most districts don't test voluntarily; state and federal laws don't require most schools to.

“We want schools to get that testing to ensure that the water is safe for children,” said Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, the executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, an East Liberty nonprofit that runs the Healthy Schools PA initiative. “But frankly, you don't know unless you test what type of problems you might have.”

Naccarati-Chapkis' organization has offered to help districts test their water for free. She said some districts in Western Pennsylvania have shown interest.

A look nationwide at levels of lead in school water grew out of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., where lead leached from pipes, contaminated people's water and put thousands of children at risk. Children are more vulnerable to the health effects of lead.

Newark Public Schools, New Jersey's largest school district, passed out bottled water and told students not to drink from the tap last month because lead tests showed some buildings with levels above federal thresholds.

Other districts, from New York City to Oregon, have tested their water for lead. The New York City Department of Education launched a website last month allowing parents to search for the latest lead tests for any building.

Districts in Western Pennsylvania don't appear to be testing. Several contacted by the Tribune-Review reported no voluntary testing. No labs that analyze water samples for lead reported schools as clients despite seeing an uptick in tests overall.

Pittsburgh Public Schools — whose oldest building, Pittsburgh Fulton, was built in 1893 — doesn't test but is developing a plan to voluntarily test the district's water for lead, said Ebony Pugh, a district spokeswoman.

“The local water companies serving the city schools have maintained that they are in compliance with the federal EPA lead and copper rule,” Pugh said in a statement.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which serves Pittsburgh Public Schools, reported an average lead level of 14.7 parts per billion, according to its latest test in 2013. The Environmental Protection Agency's action level is 15 parts per billion, a threshold at which water suppliers must test more frequently, notify consumers and take additional steps to reduce lead content.

PWSA will test for lead again this year.

Allegheny County banned the use of lead pipes in plumbing in 1969 and banned lead solder in 1988 to keep up with federal regulations.

A parent of a student in North Hills School District expressed concern about lead in 2011 after West View Water Authority, which supplies water to the district, switched some of the chemicals it uses to prevent lead from leaching into the water years earlier. The district investigated and found no lead pipes or solder in their schools, said Amanda Hartle, a spokeswoman for the district.

Brad Waters, the director of finance for Avonworth School District, said although the district hires an environmental firm to test for bacteria and other contaminants in their pipes, the firm doesn't test for lead.

“There's no lead in the lines,” Waters said.

Lead is often not present in water when it leaves a water treatment plant, but it can leach from lead pipes or solder joints and be present at the tap. In Flint, the city did not use chemicals to control how corrosive the water is when it switched water supplies from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The more corrosive Flint River water pulled lead from the city's aging infrastructure, contaminating the water with lead levels nearly twice the federal action level, higher in some places.

Most water providers in Western Pennsylvania had lead levels far below the federal action level. The Wilkinsburg-Penn Water Authority, which serves schools in Wilkinsburg, reported a lead level of 11.5 parts per billion. Wilkinsburg schools have no lead pipes, said John Frombach, the acting superintendent.

The only schools that are required to test their water for lead are schools that draw water from their own wells or otherwise supply their own water. A report by USA Today found 350 schools and day care facilities in the country failed federal lead tests 470 times between 2012 and 2015. Pennsylvania schools and day cares with their own water supplies accounted for 37 of those failed tests, the most in any state.

North Star East Middle School in Somerset County was one of them.

The school failed a lead test in 2013 when EPA inspectors tested the water coming out of a tap in a seldom-used mop closet near the library and found a level of 48.2 parts per billion.

The school of about 400 students about 25 miles south of Johnstown draws its water from a well, the only building in the North Star School District to do so, said Superintendent Lou Letley. He figured the sink hadn't been used in months, allowing lead to build up in the water in the pipes. The school had no other issues with high readings and has passed every test since, Letley said.

“It was probably an eye opener for all of us,” Letley said. “It was probably a good thing. It made us much more aware of the situation and made us much more aggressively pursue to make sure our students are safe.”

Since, the school has started to train staff to take lead test readings and make sure janitors and custodians regularly flush all the taps in the building.

“Any of the areas that probably aren't flushing their lines on a regular basis could probably run into the areas that we faced,” Letley said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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