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School districts order lead testing for water

Public concern, heightened interest prompt testing not previously completed in Scappoose and St. Helens school buildings

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: NICOLE THILL - Most public schools get their water from municipal water suppliers. While cities are required to regularly test water for lead and copper at specific sites, school districts are not required to do so unless they operate their own wells or water supplies.The St. Helens and Scappoose school districts have ordered a series of water quality tests to detect high levels of lead and copper in the districts’ buildings after heightened concern about poor water quality in Portland Public Schools.

In Scappoose and St. Helens, Superintendents Stephen Jupe and Scot Stockwell, respectively, ordered lead testing to be conducted in the districts’ buildings as soon as possible.

On Friday, June 3, Stockwell said testing in St. Helens would likely be completed over the summer since school will be out of session within the week.

“In light of the PPS water concerns, we will be testing our water throughout the district,” Stockwell said in an email last week.

On Tuesday, June 7, Jupe said the Scappoose School District’s facilities manager had already taken samples to the lab to be tested.

“I think [it’s] this concept of, watch what you know, when you know. As soon as we knew there was a generalized issue in older buildings, older water quality, we got on it,” Jupe said Tuesday.

By Thursday, results from the 20 sites tested in the Scappoose School District revealed detectable lead levels in a sink and drinking fountain at the high school, but the levels were below the Environmental Protection Agency’s allowable limit of 15 parts per billion.

Until now, neither school district had conducted water quality testing on a regular basis inside the districts’ buildings. Representatives from the school districts indicated in April, when the Spotlight previously reported on water quality testing in the area, that the school districts primarily get water from their respective city water systems, and rely on regular quality tests conducted by city officials.

The St. Helens School District provided documents Wednesday, June 7, that show water quality tests were conducted in 2001 and every year from 2005 to 2008 in 14 different locations, but no further testing was conducted.

Jupe said no previous water quality tests had been conducted in the Scappoose School District.

“If you ask the question, why hadn’t we tested before this point, well, until this became a public health concern, a lot of us have lived with lead, and extensive use in the course of our lives, [and] because the municipal water supply was clean, then we assumed that that was somewhat of an assurance that we were safe,” Jupe said.

In light of news out of Portland Public Schools that tests revealed high lead concentrations in several buildings greater than the 15 parts per billion action level set by the EPA, and did not repair the contaminated sources, both St. Helens and Scappoose school officials opted to conduct testing independently.

“As a district, we’re obviously interested in student and staff safety,” Jupe said.

City water testing standards

City water testing is conducted annually in St. Helens and Scappoose by city staff and the results are publicized in consumer reports. Water is tested at specific locations during each testing cycle and the number of sites is determined by the population served. The location of the test sites are determined by certain criteria, according to David Leeland, manager of drinking water services for the Oregon Drinking Water Protection Program.

Homes built before 1985 that have copper plumbing, lead service lines or lead soder at plumbing joints are generally targeted first, Leeland explained.

   However, none of those test sites include school buildings. A survey of school buildings in both school districts shows that at least 13 buildings were built before 1985.

While a specific test site might show no detectable levels of lead or copper in the water, when water with a certain acidity comes into contact with older pipes, it can cause lead and copper to leach into the water supply, meaning the pipes and fixtures leading into buildings are the cause of concern, not the water alone, Leeland explained.

Jupe expressed a similar sentiment.

“The issue is the water supply. The municipal water supply may be clean and may be relatively toxic free, but in a large building and in an older building, ... that clearly doesn’t guarantee that what comes out the other end of the tap is lead-free,” Jupe said.

Despite acknowledging the concern that clean city water doesn’t necessarily mean clean water in older school buildings, Jupe said the district never thought it was necessary to test the water.

“Because this is really a concept that didn’t occur to us, I think, and certainly didn’t occur to me until I suddenly realized some of these other districts — and I only realized it once there had been big publicity about that — that they’re finding issues and they’re having issues, then we should find out,” Jupe said.

While the EPA requires public water systems to regularly test water samples and provide consumer confidence reports, Leeland explained that school districts aren’t required to test school sites specifically unless they have their own water system, which roughly 100 schools in Oregon do, he said.

Scappoose Adventist School, a private K-6 in Columbia County, is one of those schools. The single-building K-6 school operates on a well that also services the Scappoose Adventist Church building. In December 2014, the school reported lead levels of 30 parts per billion in one faucet, which was the result of faulty testing methods.

Sauvie Island Academy also operates on a private well and has its water systems tested regularly. The most recent test in July 2014 indicated levels of 2.9 parts per billion, significantly below the EPA action level.

Dangers of high lead in water and what to do

According to the EPA, high levels of exposure to lead can cause, “damage to the brain, red blood cells, and kidneys [and] exposure to even low levels of lead can cause low IQ, hearing impairment, reduced attention span, and poor classroom performance.”

Leeland said he recommends flushing water systems in buildings or homes built before 1985 when the water has been sitting stagnant for a long period of time. Letting cool water run through the pipes before consuming it, he said, can help flush out stagnant water that may have a higher concentration of lead in it due to prolonged exposure.

Public communication to come

Both school districts said they have not taken any additional precautionary measures to prevent students or staff from drinking water at the schools and will likely wait for test results before taking action.

Records of the water testing results in the St. Helens School District are expected to be posted on the district’s website by the end of the week, Stockwell said. In Scappoose, Jupe said he plans to distribute information to parents within in the next few weeks.

On Wednesday, the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education released a recommendation for school districts across the state to test for lead in their water systems over the summer. The agencies announced they will work with school districts and day care facilities over the summer to develop a statewide plan to test water.

There is no requirement, however, for districts to comply with the recommendation, and no state funding has been allocated to testing costs.