Lead contamination in Tacoma: More water problems at Whittier school, ongoing review of testing records

by Debbie Cafazzo, originally posted on April 27, 2016


UPDATE: As a result of Tacoma Public Schools setting a new, lower standard for lead in school drinking water at 15 parts per billion, the list of schools with possible lead problems continues to grow. The district posted this message on its website Wednesday evening:

Consistent with this protocol, we completed a new review of our water test results for Birney, Browns Point, Larchmont, Point Defiance, Whitman and Whittier elementary schools, and found from one to five additional fixtures at each school that tested just above the lower threshold. We have ordered bottled water for all affected schools until we can make repairs to the fixtures, if necessary, and retest.

Tacoma Public Schools has prohibited food preparation at Whittier Elementary School in Fircrest until kitchen facilities at the school can be retested for lead in drinking water.

A message sent to parents Wednesday said all food for Whittier students will be prepared at Mount Tahoma High School until the district can retest kitchen facilities.

The News Tribune learned of the new message from Whittier parents.

Also Wednesday, the district told Whittier parents it was reassessing its standard for lead testing.

The previous standard of 20 parts per billion, while complying with EPA recommendations for testing of school water, is slightly less stringent than for water in public water systems, where the standard is no more than 15 ppb.

Tacoma officials told The News Tribune late Tuesday, and informed Whittier parents Wednesday, that it now is reviewing water tests performed last year with the new 15 ppb standard in mind.

That means seven additional school fixtures have been added to the list of concerns at Whittier. Those seven tested just above the lower threshold. On Tuesday, Whittier parents were told that three spots in the school tested over the 20 ppb standard.

The district said it is ordering bottled water for all Whittier staff members and students to use until fixtures can be retested and needed repairs made.

“We are working with our partners to improve how we measure water quality,” district spokesman Dan Voelpel told parents. “And we’re taking a hard look at how to make more rapid corrections to ensure student health and safety.”

Voelpel also said Tacoma Public Schools is working with state and county health officials on a water-sampling plan that is “part of that improvement strategy.”

And he said the school district is working with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to understand more about past test results.

After Tacoma Water raised concerns about possible lead problems in drinking water last week, The News Tribune asked the school district on Friday for test results from inside city schools.

Friday evening, the district began reviewing records from water testing in elementary schools that was conducted in May 2015. The district has not yet made those records public.

The district is investigating why the records remained buried for nearly a year and why it appears no action was taken to follow up on test results that showed high lead levels in water.

The district’s safety and environmental health manager has been placed on paid administrative leave while the investigation is ongoing.

“We are working as quickly as we can,” Superintendent Carla Santorno said.

In an interview Tuesday, Santorno said most of last year’s water sampling was conducted by the employee on leave, Ken Wilson. She said he is certified to conduct the water sampling, but that some of the sampling might have been done by outside contractors.

All analysis of the water samples was conducted by an outside laboratory, most by Spectra Laboratories of Tacoma.

Voelpel said The News Tribune’s request for the records on water testing is “being processed by our public records officer.” Neither he nor Santorno could say when the records might be released.

Here’s what the district record review has uncovered so far:

▪ High lead levels at Mann and Reed elementary schools, including one reading at Reed of more than 2,000 ppb. Water at Mann and Reed was retested Tuesday and sent for lab analysis.

▪ High lead readings in water tested last year at isolated locations at Whittier, DeLong and Manitou Park elementary schools and at Madison Head Start.

The district has ordered bottled water for students and staff members at the six schools.

▪ Wednesday’s announcement of more problems at Whittier, using the new 15 ppb standard.

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