Lead in Kitsap schools’ water largely an unknown

by Christina Henry, originally posted on May 9, 2016


BAINBRIDGE ISLAND — With the exception of Bainbridge Island, no other school district in Kitsap County can show it has recently tested for lead in schools’ water and is taking steps to prevent lead exposure in students.

Bainbridge has been battling since early 2016 to correct water quality issues at Ordway Elementary and other school buildings.

In North Mason, schools are on a three-year testing protocol, and results back to 2013 show no schools with elevated levels of lead.

Central Kitsap and North Kitsap school districts most recently tested water at all schools in 2004, the same year voluntary testing at Seattle Public Schools showed dangerous levels of lead at some schools. Seattle schools are now tested every three years.

In CK, elevated lead was detected at fixtures in five schools. The fixtures were replaced and tested OK. NK schools all tested OK.

Bremerton and South Kitsap school districts say they will not be able to respond to media records requests about lead in water until later this month.

Ahead of the curve

Concern about lead in water at schools is heightened across the state, after high levels recently were reported at 13 Tacoma public schools. Parents didn’t learn about the results for nearly a year.

Gov. Jay Inslee has ordered review of an unenforced rule requiring schools to test for lead. Right now testing is voluntary.

Bainbridge undertook voluntary water testing over winter break, trying to get ahead of the law, which was triggered by Seattle schools’ 2004 results and which went on the books in 2009. The rule was deferred to 2017 for lack of funding.

In the first round of results on Bainbridge, elevated levels of lead — above the 20 parts per billion “action level” specified in federal guidelines for schools and day cares, and in the dormant state law — were detected in 13 fixtures including nine at Ordway. Ordway has been on bottled water since late February, when follow-up tests showed elevated levels in roughly 34 percent of fixtures at the school.

The second round of testing showed 21 of 23 Ordway fixtures with elevated levels of lead had passed the initial screening. The highest reading, from an art room faucet, was 384 parts per billion.

Consultants from Confluence Engineering, hired in March to test faucets and water fountains at all Bainbridge schools, concluded the district’s inconsistent results stemmed from incorrect testing methods. For one thing, the district let the water sit too long before initial tests, since the buildings weren’t in use over break, said Tamela Van Winkle, director of facilities, operations and capital projects..

EPA guidelines say outlets must be inactive for at least six to eight hours before a “first draw” sample is taken. The state rule specifies “at least eight hours.” On Bainbridge it was a matter of days.

No safe level of lead

According to Keith Grellner, Kitsap Public Health District’s environmental health director, the purpose of the school water testing protocol is to evaluate water conditions inside a building under normal use, not when it’s unoccupied. Testing water that has sat too long in pipes can trigger a falsely high result, Grellner said.

The school testing protocol is different from the federal lead and copper rule that governs municipal water testing.

In reality, no amount of lead is considered safe. That’s especially true for children. The accompanying reality is that eliminating lead entirely from plumbing in homes, schools and other buildings is virtually impossible at this time, due to the presence of lead in older pipes, Grellner said. Newer fixtures contain lower levels of lead, but there is no such thing as lead free. One can only hope to minimize exposure.

Since 2008, the Kitsap Public Health District has screened 20 cases of people with elevated blood lead levels. In every instance, the source was lead-based paint, hobbies or industrial exposure, not water.

Grellner said regular testing of water in schools is the right thing to do, but the risk should be put in perspective.

“While lead is a very serious and important issue, we don’t appear to have a serious issue in Kitsap,” Grellner said. “And what we have doesn’t appear to be related to water.”

Let that water run

Grellner notes that the 20 parts per billion threshold is a red flag mechanism meant to trigger replacement and retesting of faulty fixtures long before lead levels reach dangerous proportions.

“These action levels are very low. They’re very conservative, because they’re gauged to be protective of health,” Grellner said. The stagnant water test reflects a “normal” use worst-case scenario.

So what about the first kid at the water fountain in morning? Grellner recommends that whether you’re at home or at school, let the water run until it’s cold to ensure soluble lead that’s settled out is flushed away.

Following initial results, the district flushed pipes at Ordway, which is one accepted method to address excess lead, along with taking fixtures offline, replacing them and retesting. The flushing was overly aggressive, however, stirring up particulate lead in pipes in a way that would not happen with regular use, said Melinda Friedman of Confluence. The combination of the two testing errors likely resulted in false positives.

The latest results

In mid-April, Confluence retested Ordway’s fixtures. Most that tested high in January, now are under the threshold, according to results posted on the district’s website. One remained high, and two new fixtures tested high (28 ppb and 64 ppb).

“These hits are very likely evidence of some remaining particulate lead, most likely due to the lack of use of the bubblers (water fountains) since they are out of service and have remained out of service since February,” Friedman said.

The district, on advice of Confluence and the Health District, is implementing a “bubbler exercising” protocol at these fixtures, which have been replaced and will be retested before being put into service.

“Bottled water will continue to be provided at Ordway until the school gets a clean sample round,” Friedman said.

In March, Confluence tested Woodward Middle School, which had not previously been tested, and found elevated lead in seven of 107 fixtures. Four, in portables rarely used, were taken out of service. Two were replaced, and the last was actually a “spittoon” for athletes, not a source for drinking water.

Safety at what cost?

The district has spent an estimated $100,000 so far on testing, replacing fixtures and hiring outside help. Part of Inslee’s directive to state officials is to evaluate the real cost to districts of addressing problems with their water that may bubble to the surface once testing begins.

Grellner notes that many of the problem fixtures in Bainbridge schools were taps for filling mop buckets and the like, not drinking water sources. Schools, and the state, should prioritize funding for sources where water will be consumed, he said. “Since money is limited, let’s spend the money and sample the fixtures that matter the most first.”

Van Winkle says Bainbridge is happy to be a guinea pig for what’s in store for other districts.

“At this point, I’m sure people are interested in what our findings are, and of course we’ll share them with whoever’s interested.”

Find the district’s water test results on its capital projects page, under “community information,” here.

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