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updated: 12/5/2016 9:55 AM

How much lead is in your school's water?

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  • Special education teacher's assistant Allison Groessl takes a sip from a new water fountain at Maine South High School in Park Ridge. It replaced an older fountain that leached lead into the drinking water.

      Special education teacher's assistant Allison Groessl takes a sip from a new water fountain at Maine South High School in Park Ridge. It replaced an older fountain that leached lead into the drinking water.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Three new water fountains were installed in two of Maine Township High School District 207's schools to replace older models that had leached lead into the drinking water.

      Three new water fountains were installed in two of Maine Township High School District 207's schools to replace older models that had leached lead into the drinking water.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • School districts are handling lead remediation and monitoring differently, in the absence of government mandates.

      School districts are handling lead remediation and monitoring differently, in the absence of government mandates.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 
Part of a continuing series

For years, a drinking fountain in the library at Stone Elementary School in Addison offered refreshment to anyone walking past.

But recent tests showed it was delivering a dose of lead with every sip of water.

The fountain, which was replaced before school began in the fall, had lead levels more than 212 times the federal safety threshold of 15 parts per billion in a liter, according to a sample taken during the summer.

At 3,200 parts per billion, the lead in water from Stone School's library drinking fountain was the highest among samples taken from 319 suburban schools since 2013. That's according to a Daily Herald analysis of water quality test results obtained through public records requests from suburban school districts in six counties.

Sixty-nine schools -- 22 percent -- had water fountains or faucets that tested at or above the federal standard, the records show.

In all, 5,112 samples from suburban schools were tested; 245 of them had lead levels above the federal threshold.

That includes 127 water samples from St. Charles Unit District 303 schools, 38 samples from Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 schools, 14 samples from Indian Prairie Unit District 204 schools in Aurora and Naperville, 14 samples from Addison Elementary District 4, which includes Stone Elementary School, and 12 samples from Schaumburg Elementary District 54 schools.

Safe or sorry

Not every school district has tested for lead, which is particularly dangerous for children because it affects brain development, according to the World Health Organization. Despite the federal threshold, there is no known safe level of lead exposure, according to the international health agency.

While 59 suburban school districts tested for lead in water at all or some schools, 31 districts had not done any testing. Two other school districts have tested but have not received results. Between the districts that tested only some schools and those that tested none, 325 suburban schools remain unchecked.


View schools with leadDid your school test for lead? Of 319 suburban schools that were tested for lead in drinking water, 69 had at least one sample at or above the federal threshold of 15 parts per billion. Click here for to see if your school was one of them.


The extent of testing varied greatly, as well. School districts that had the most samples exceeding the federal threshold were often testing more thoroughly.

"I just know for me, I was most comfortable being able to say to parents, 'We tested it all,'" said St. Charles District 303 Superintendent Don Schlomann. "That's why we made a decision to go at it pretty aggressively."

It's unknown how long the drinking fountain inside Stone School's library had been leaching lead into the water. But Addison District 4 Superintendent John Langton doesn't believe anyone experienced ill effects from it.

"We have not had anybody report there was a concern about lead exposure after their child had been tested," he said. "That was a very old water fountain that was immediately replaced when we saw the results."

Many suburban school districts were spooked into testing their water this year in the wake of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and poor results of water testing at Chicago Public Schools over the summer, but much of that testing could be considered cursory. Some suburban districts tested just one drinking fountain in each school.

Illinois does not require tests on drinking water at schools, except those served by well water. The majority of suburban schools use Lake Michigan or Fox River water.

Beside St. Charles and Addison, only 11 other suburban districts performed comprehensive water quality tests throughout all their schools, taking samples from drinking fountains, kitchen sinks, classroom sinks, bathroom faucets, gym showers, nurse stations and any other spigots located on school grounds.

"Any place that a kid could potentially get some water out and ingest it we wanted tested to make sure our kids were safe and our staff was safe," Langton said.

Equipment failure

When school water samples show elevated levels of lead, they likely are caused by the fixtures the water comes from. The metal and solder commonly contain lead, especially in older fixtures.

Drinking water is tested for lead every three years by the municipalities that provide the water. If the water were the source of a school's lead contamination, outside testing would have revealed similar results, officials said.

The school's internal pipes also could cause lead contamination, which would be evident throughout the school instead of just at certain fixtures. That's why it's important to do a comprehensive test of all equipment, some school officials said.

"At first we did random samplings, and we saw lead in one of the samples so we decided let's go ahead and test all the fountains and fixtures," said Dave Ulm, director of facilities at Maine Township High School District 207. "I wasn't going to rest on assuming we had found the one bad one."

In fact, there were nine "bad ones" in District 207's schools. The district wound up removing two fountains altogether, rebuilding four and replacing three.

District 207 tested 185 samples from its three high schools. While only eight samples came back above the federal safety threshold, 23 samples recorded some level of lead. Given that knowledge, the school board decided to test for lead annually going forward to monitor water quality.

What's next?

School districts are handling lead remediation and monitoring differently, in the absence of government mandates.

Action is required only if tests show lead levels above the federal threshold. However, several school samples recorded lead levels near that limit.

Of the 59 school districts that performed water quality tests, 39 of them combined to record 763 samples tainted with some level of lead. That's nearly 15 percent of all the districts' samples.

When the Antioch Community High School football stadium drinking fountain's sample had lead levels at 22.7 parts per billion, district officials flushed the fountain out and retested. They argued that since the original sample was water that had been stagnating for months in an unused fountain water line, it was not a representative sample. Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Nolde said the district now has a policy to "flush out any winter water" from the fountain and concession stand before opening it back up to the public to avoid lead contamination.

Lake Zurich Unit District 95 officials ordered comprehensive water quality tests at all eight schools in February. Four of the 306 samples showed lead above the federal threshold and fixes were made to the equipment, according to Lyle Erstad, District 95's director of facilities and grounds. However, 105 other samples had some level of lead contamination, including samples from all the girls locker room showers at the high school. While human skin cannot absorb lead, experts say it's not ideal to bathe in water contaminated with lead. Still, there is nothing that requires the school to act on the problem, and District 95 does not plan to do so.

"If the readings were above the (federal) action level, we would remediate," Erstad said.

Coming Tuesday: Why there's no requirement to test water for lead in Illinois schools.

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