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What you need to know about lead in Portland Public Schools

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SUBMITTED PHOTO - Palates of water wait for students and staff at a school in Portland during uncertainty over lead levels in the water fixtures.What happened?

After urging from parents, the district conducted lead tests at three schools this spring. Fourteen fixtures at Creston and Rose City Park schools were found to have lead above the district’s 15 parts per billion benchmark. Most of them were replaced, with two sinks that are no longer allowed for drinking water or food preparation.

However, the district tested the fixtures on March 22 and April 22 but did not tell the public about the lead findings until Friday, May 27. The fixtures at Creston were also left open for use for eight days after the tests confirmed elevated lead levels.

Do Portland schools regularly test for lead?

No.

The last time Portland Public Schools conducted systemwide tests for lead was in 2001. Follow-up tests on replaced fixtures came in 2002, then a sampling in 2003.

A document surfaced last week suggesting that additional lead testing had been done in 2010 and 2012. District officials say they have documentation that they did some sort of remediation after lead was found in 140 fixtures. But five fixtures — a food prep sink at Peninsula Elementary School and fountains at Applegate Elementary School, Jackson Middle School, Vernon Elementary School and Whitman Elementary School — have yet to be fixed.

In April, Gov. Kate Brown called for the Oregon Health Authority to look into statewide school lead issues that could lead to a requirement to test for lead.

So what is PPS going to do about it?

Superintendent Smith laid out her plan during community meetings last week and the district has set up a webpage on this issue at pps.net.

The district had already budgeted $450,000 to conduct “water quality testing” and resulting renovations during this summer. Smith also says that the city of Portland’s Water Bureau has agreed to an in-kind donation of $100,000 of water analysis. The superintendent is also willing to dip into contingency funds to ensure the work is done by the start of school.

Smith also announced the creation of a Healthy Water Task Force, which will recruit members from Multnomah County Health Department, the Oregon Health Authority, environmental groups and water quality engineers.

Who knew what when?

That is the question everyone is asking themselves. Superintendent Carole Smith says she wasn’t aware of this year’s lead testing nor results until Wednesday, May 25. Once she had that information, she says she “acted immediately” to shut off water supplies and come up with a plan to offer bottled water. That was on the evening of Friday, May 27.

Emails have surfaced between top officials from 2012 that show the beginnings of a campaign to put stickers on faucets with lead issues, but that plan never materialized.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A fountain is closed at Rose City Park School pending further lead testing.

Will the superintendent get to keep her job?

Carole Smith says she is focused on remedying this crisis and getting to the bottom of what happened.

The school board has vowed to investigate and take necessary action.

“We are committed to understanding exactly how this happened and holding folks accountable,” says board Chairman Tom Koehler.

Did PPS inaction actually poison kids?

No one really knows for sure yet.

A Creston School parent of a 9-year-old, Trina Harper, filed a formal complaint with the district Thursday, June 2. During the last seven months, the girl’s kidney issues have unexpectedly become critical, requiring long hospitalizations, Harper says.

Perry Cabot, who is in charge of Multnomah County’s lead prevention program, told parents Wednesday that there is a lot of uncertainty but the risk is low.

“The answer is probably that: No, there is not significant risk for (a) child,” he says, but Cabot adds: “I’m not willing to say there is no risk.”

Lead tests are conducted on water that has been left sitting overnight. During a day of use, the levels are much lower.

What happens if a kid is poisoned?

If a child ingests even a small amount of lead, it can cause permanent and irreversible damage to their brain and nervous system, according to the Mayo Clinic. The lead fills in calcium receptors and stunts development, leading to brain damage, learning difficulties, behavioral and attention problems.

Where does the lead come from?

Lead in water comes from pipes installed before the 1986 Safe Drinking Water Act. Public utilities, including the Portland Water Bureau, dug up and replaced leaded pipes or leaded solder in the 1990s. So, lead can still be found in the interior plumbing of buildings but not in the mainlines.

Lead is more commonly found in paint from before 1978 and old toys, appliances, tubs or sinks. Cabot tells Oregon Public Broadcasting that of the 188 cases of lead poisoning the county investigated in the last three years, the overwhelming majority came from lead paint dust or chips.

“I would be especially worried if I had a baby or a crawling infant in an older home,” Cabot says.