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Lead tests reveal troubled waters at Portland schools

Superintendent Smith apologizes for not informing people sooner

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - A Marysville K-8 School student at a drinking fountain when the school reopened in 2012 after a fire. Marysville was not one of the schools found to have lead in district spot checks this spring. Portland Public Schools children will consume bottled water for the rest of the school year, officials announced late Friday evening.

That is in response to revelations that — after pressure from parents — Portland Public Schools tested for lead in its water faucets and fixtures on March 22 and found 14 out of 92 of Creston K-8 School and Rose City Park School fixtures had unacceptable levels of lead.

The information was first made public to parents by Creston K-8 School Principal Conrad Hurdle on Wednesday, nearly two months later.

“Portland Public Schools regrets not having notified families and staff as soon as the tests indicated that there were elevated levels of lead,” Smith wrote Friday afternoon to parents. “While PPS staff worked quickly to replace all fixtures that indicated elevated levels of lead, we did not turn off the water in those faucets and drinking fountains prior to them being replaced and we should have.”

Smith could face some political fallout from the lack of notification. As of press time, more than 500 people had signed a Change.org petition asking for her resignation or termination. The district is also hoping to ask voters in November for another school improvement bond.

The district plans to hold a community meeting Tuesday evening at 5 p.m. at Creston school on the issue.

In a Friday evening announcement, the district seemed to dramatically ramp up its response, saying it would turn off all drinking fountains in the district and offer bottled water for the rest of the year until it could test all the fixtures.

"We are taking these steps out of an abundance of caution for our students, our teachers, and our staff, as we work to determine whether additional schools have elevated levels of lead in the drinking water," Smith said in the news release.

Students at both Creston and Rose City Park will get on-site blood lead tests, the district said.

Except for two science room sinks that will now only be used for washing, the fixtures at those schools have been replaced, and retesting will occur the week of June 6, Smith says.

The rest of the fixtures in all the schools will be tested over the summer, the district says.

Safe exposure level debated

Advocates for lead testing and abatement say the Environmental Protection Agency's "action level" of lead at 15 parts per billion is a political compromise, and that any detectable lead can cause health problems, especially in young children.

According to the Portland-based national nonprofit Lead Safe America Foundation, symptoms of lead poisoning can range from brain damage, behavioral disorders and Attention-Deficit Disorder, among other developmental disabilities.

The 2016-17 PPS budget includes money for lead testing district-wide.

The prevalence of lead has been a recent hot-button issue nationally with the discovery of lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water and also locally with the Department of Environmental Quality’s discovery of airborne toxins, including lead, near the Bullseye Glass plant in Southeast Portland.

2001 round of testing

This is not the first time the district has found dangerously high levels of lead in its drinking water.

In 2001, the district found 35 out of 40 buildings tested had fixtures leaking lead into its drinking water — at levels as high as 162 parts per billion.

The district then went on a campaign to replace fixtures — particularly bubbler-type drinking fountains — and pipes. They installed Pentair Pentek filters on any replacement fixture that was still shown to have more than 15 parts per billion of lead. Those filters are rated for lead reduction through 2,000 gallons. District officials said they have been replaced annually or as needed by a contractor.

“It’s now time for permanent changes,” then-interim superintendent Jim Scherzinger said on Aug. 17, 2001.

In a question-and-answer page on the district website, it promised to continue checking for lead after repairs were made.

District officials backtracked on earlier statements that they routinely test for lead. Instead, all filters were checked the year after installation and 1 percent of those were found to have failed. The following year, 10 percent of the filters were tested and none were over the 15 parts per billion level. Since then, the district has only done spot tests as requested.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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