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updated: 12/6/2016 9:40 AM

Why schools won't test for lead

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  • New water filtration equipment was installed at many locations throughout St. Charles East High School, including in the kitchen, after comprehensive testing showed several water outlets were leaching lead.

      New water filtration equipment was installed at many locations throughout St. Charles East High School, including in the kitchen, after comprehensive testing showed several water outlets were leaching lead.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • St. Charles Unit District 303 installed filters on some water faucets after more than 100 water samples tested above the federal safety threshold.

      St. Charles Unit District 303 installed filters on some water faucets after more than 100 water samples tested above the federal safety threshold.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Who is testing for lead

    Graphic: Who is testing for lead (click image to open)

  • Lead testing by the numbers

    Graphic: Lead testing by the numbers (click image to open)

 
 

When Crystal Lake High School District 155 tested water in its schools, 60 percent of the samples showed some level of lead contamination, with eight high enough that the district flushed water lines and took one faucet out of use completely.

That doesn't sway another school district that shares some of the same territory. Fox River Grove Elementary District 3, which feeds students into District 155, hasn't tested its water for lead and doesn't plan to.

"We do not test because it has never been brought up as a concern, nor is it a requirement to do so," District 3 Superintendent Tim Mahaffy said.

In the suburbs, 325 schools have not been tested for lead in the water, a Daily Herald investigation found.

That's in spite of results of voluntary testing at 319 other schools, where nearly 22 percent had lead exceeding a federal standard of 15 parts per billion in a liter of water, with the highest being 212 times higher. Those schools repaired or replaced equipment, shut down service to faucets, or flushed the system and retested with results below the federal threshold.

The issue has come to the forefront in the wake of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and poor results of testing last summer at Chicago Public Schools.

But there has not been consensus to mandate lead testing of water at Illinois schools, with the cost to taxpayers being a hurdle. One bill to require testing was approved by an Illinois House committee and could get a vote in January. But if it does not pass in the remaining two days of the legislative session, it will have to start over.

Lead law

Laws governing water quality in schools generally pertain only to the source. Testing for contaminants including lead is left to operators of public water systems, usually municipalities.

Once the water is inside school walls and coming out of spigots, further testing is optional. The exception is schools using well water, which are required to test.

But plumbing fixtures have turned out to be the culprits at suburban schools that have conducted tests. Metal and solder in pipes, faucets and fountains can add lead to water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "suggests" schools test all water outlets such as faucets and fountains and shut off any that produce a sample containing lead above 20 parts per billion.

In Illinois, the House Environmental Committee unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that would require schools to test water for lead. Vernon Hills Democratic state Rep. Carol Sente, the environmental committee's vice chairwoman, said the bill is likely to be debated when the legislature returns to Springfield Jan. 9. If it fails to pass before the legislative session ends on Jan. 10, it will be refiled after the new session starts, Sente said.

"This isn't going away," she said. "Everyone in the committee is pretty committed to the idea that something needs to be done."

Sente said the biggest hang-up is likely to be the cost. Some school officials and lawmakers are against the state's imposing new requirements without paying for them.

A key group that usually lobbies against unfunded mandates has softened its position but still isn't backing testing.

The Illinois Association of School Administrators isn't taking sides, said Mike Chamness, a group spokesman.

"The reason we didn't take a position on the bill is the cost to school districts," Chamness said. "While we agree with the sponsor that safety is a top priority, state funding and cost uncertainties is why we remain neutral. On principle, we have always opposed unfunded mandates and we have moved off that position on this because of the safety issue."

Testing can be relatively inexpensive, at $30 to check for lead and copper in each liter bottle of water, though some school districts that hire consultants to draw the samples pay more. Responding to high test results can be more costly.

"We were lucky and didn't find anything that said we have to dig up pipes," said St. Charles Unit District 303 Superintendent Don Schlomann.

District 303 conducted extensive testing during the summer and found lead levels above 15 parts per billion in 127 of the 577 samples collected. Replacing and repairing faucets and drinking fountains cost $31,000, according to district invoices.

Addison Elementary District 4 spent $16,320 on testing at its 10 buildings. When results revealed significant problems with older drinking fountains and faucets, repairs and remediation to the various buildings cost an additional $27,706.

"We spent a lot of money on remediation and retesting to make sure there wasn't a problem anymore," District 4 Superintendent John Langton. "But I was pleased we were able to address it and be proactive."

Not alone

Illinois is not alone in its lack of testing requirements.

New York this year claimed to be the first state to have tested all schools and reported results to the public. A new law requires mitigation if water samples are found with lead above 15 parts per billion.

New Jersey announced a requirement for schools to test by next July and allocated $10 million to reimburse schools to do so. But other states make testing voluntary.

Older schools are the ones at greater risk for lead in water. Standards for plumbing and fixtures have been tightened over time to reduce the chances of lead exposure.

Children are particularly prone to health risks associated with lead poisoning because it can affect brain development, according to the World Health Organization. While the federal threshold is 15 parts per billion, WHO officials note there is no safe level of lead exposure.

From the 319 suburban schools tested, 5,112 water samples were drawn. Of those, 763 showed some level of lead contamination and 245 samples were above 15 parts per billion, according to the records examined by the Daily Herald.

Only a few suburban school districts, like St. Charles and Addison, have tested most or all water outlets at all of their schools.

Schlomann called it "cheap insurance" to have a result from every spigot or fountain that a student or faculty member could possibly use for drinking water.

Armed with the results from neighboring districts in St. Charles and Batavia that showed lead-tainted water, Geneva Unit District 304 officials won't sample water from every outlet when testing begins in a few weeks.

"It's a concern, and that's why we're doing the testing," said Superintendent Kent Mutchler, "but we've done some remodeling and a couple of our buildings are newer, so we're going to start with random sampling."

Schlomann said it's up to leaders in every district to decide how to proceed with water testing in the absence of any state mandates, but he urged his colleagues who have not tested or done limited testing to consider a comprehensive approach.

"I'm always comfortable being as aggressive as I can about safety," he said.

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