Lead in drinking water at 2 Portland schools raises specter of broader problems
by Betsy Hammond, originally posted on May 27, 2016
Portland Public Schools plans to test the water at every school building this summer after tests at two schools, Rose City Park and Creston, found unsafe levels of lead coming from sinks and drinking fountains.
Parents at Rose City Park say they are extremely upset that school district officials waited until this week to tell them that tests conducted eight weeks earlier had revealed lead levels as high as double the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion.
And they say they are concerned that students at other Portland schools could be drinking tainted water from classroom sinks and hallway drinking fountains. The last time Portland did widespread water quality testing, the results showed “most schools have at least one location where lead levels are above 15 ppb,” then-Superintendent Jim Scherzinger wrote to parents.
No one knows how long the faucets and fountains at Rose City Park and Creston had been emitting lead, since they had not been tested since 2001.
“Parents are worried. I am worried,” said Andrea Paluso, whose fifth-grader is wrapping up his third year in the Rose City Park building and whose third-grader goes there, too. “I am definitely going to take my kids to get their blood tested.”
Portland Public Schools arranged to test the water at Rose City Park after a parent, concerned by what happened in Flint, Michigan, insisted on it. It is also unclear why the district ran tests at Creston, but district spokewoman Christine Miles said, “we do random testing when requested by school staff or concerned parents.”
Those tests detected high levels of lead coming from many sinks and from two drinking fountains at Rose City Park and one at Creston.
Nothing in state or federal law requires schools to test drinking water for lead or recommends how frequently faucets and fountains should be retested after being found safe.
But many Portland parents are adamant that it should happen more frequently than every 15 years, the school district’s current interval.
Their concerns mimic the outrage that surfaced among Portland Public Schools parents in 2001, when the district last conducted thorough water testing.
At the first 40 schools tested, 35 had unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water. So district officials shut off every drinking fountain and some sinks and hauled in five-gallon jugs of clean water for students to drink instead. The last documented testing before then had taken place in 1991.
Parents were livid: How could the district not have records of systematic testing since a decade earlier? Then-facilities director Pam Brown had no good explanation, but vowed the district would do better: testing more frequently, keeping good records and making sure parents and the public could see results.
And, for one year, it did. The district tested every fountain and faucet — and made upgrades and repairs at each one that gave off lead-laced results. Some sinks and fountains still gave off lead, however, presumably from pipes deep inside school walls or underground. In those cases, the district installed filters and retested for lead.
About 1 percent the filter-equipped faucets and fountains still emitted too much lead. But it turned out in every case that the filter was faulty, and a new filter took care of the problem, Portland’s current senior manager for health and safety, Andy Fridley, wrote in a memo to the Rose City Park school administrators this week. When all the filters were replaced in summer 2002, Fridley wrote, about 10 percent of the fixtures were tested for lead, and every test came back negative.
Since then, the district has done no systematic testing of water quality, “assuming” that the filters were 100 percent effective, Fridley wrote.
In fact, the filters the district uses, Pentair Pentek model CFB-PB10, are not certified as effective for lead reduction.
Miles said the district had already budgeted and planned to test all fountains and faucets this summer before news of the tainted water reached parents this week.
Fridley agreed to be interviewed about water quality Friday morning but later said he had been asked to delay the interview until after 4 p.m., with the district heading into the long Memorial Day weekend. At 3:30 p.m., district lobbyist Courtney Westling said the district would delay the interview past 4 p.m.
Rose City Park school, built in 1912 and added to in 1977, is in Northeast Portland and is currently home to Access Academy, a magnet program for gifted students, and first- and third-grade classes from overcrowded Beverly Cleary School. Altogether, about 550 students attend school there.
In March, several sinks in two science classrooms and three other rooms were found to be giving off lead-tainted water. So were two drinking fountains, one on the first floor and one on the second. Students were allowed to use those fountains and sinks until they were repaired, which took almost two weeks. Follow-up tests on May 6 tests showed they were safe. Repairs to the science room sinks didn’t stop lead emissions, so no one is allowed to drink from them, officials indicated.
Creston, in Southeast Portland, is a K-8 school with about 400 students. It was built in 1949 and an annex was added in 1954.
In March, a kitchen sink, a classroom sink and a drinking fountain all were found to be emitting high levels of lead in the water. Water from the fountain, called a Chicago bubbler, was found to contain 33 ppbs of lead. Tests run in April also showed high lead levels in a kitchen sink, a classroom sink and library faucet. It is unclear how and whether those problems have been addressed.