Mercer County school districts act on lead pollution

by Laura Pollack, originally posted on May 31, 2016


The Hamilton, Lawrence and Ewing school districts are among those in Mercer County that have tested positive for higher than acceptable levels of lead in the water in some of their schools.

With schools across the nation discovering elevated levels of lead in their drinking water, the three districts earlier this year decided to conduct third party tests to measure lead levels in their water.

Officials in the three districts said that their water providers—Trenton Water Works for Ewing, Lawrence and parts of Hamilton, and Aqua New Jersey for the rest of Hamilton—routinely test water for harmful pollutants. Both providers are within compliance of federal guidelines for elevated lead levels, according to Karl Environmental Group, the consultant firm that tested Hamilton’s water.

In years past, the tests from water providers were thought to give sufficient information to properly gauge the safety of drinking water. However, after the Flint, Michigan water crisis in 2015 and recent reports about Newark school district’s contamination—where lead levels were 35 times higher than the federal guidelines—concerns are growing over lead leaching into water from aging infrastructure.

Lead can contaminate water from plumbing materials, including pipes and solder, as well as brass fixtures, according to Karl Environmental Group’s reports. Buildings and homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes and fixtures, according to the EPA, and many school buildings in the county were built prior to 1986.

Each district hired a third party consultant firm to test their water, and while the specific results varied, the county wide trend shows that elevated lead levels were found in sporadic places in certain buildings.

The elevated lead levels were above the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion, which requires additional testing and remediation.

Out of the 71 locations that were tested in Ewing, elevated lead levels were found in seven places throughout the district, including Antheil Elementary, Lore Elementary, Fisher Middle School and Ewing High School. The contaminated areas ranged from 16 ppb to 59 ppb.

“According to our consultants, these figures represent a relatively low level of lead concentration and could possibly be caused by testing anomalies,” said Business Administrator and Board Secretary Dennis Nettleton in a statement. “However, we have followed the recommendations of our consultant and turned off the seven outlets that have been identified by the testing.”

Lawrence tested more than 600 locations, and preliminary test results showed that elevated levels of lead were found in select locations in Eldridge Park, Lawrenceville Elementary and Slackwood schools. All of the locations with elevated lead levels, including sinks and water fountains, were shut off.

Lawrence Schools Business Administrator Tom Eldridge said Eldridge said the district ordered approximately $30,000 worth of faucets and bubblers to replace ones that tested positive for lead contamination. The new fixtures will be retested to ensure lead levels are below the EPA’s action standard before they’re reopened. In the meantime, bottled water has been provided for students and staff. Fountains that tested below the EPA’s action standard remain open.

In Hamilton, preliminary reports show that Morgan Elementary School had the largest number of elevated lead levels, with 11 locations testing above the action standard. Most of the 11 water fountains that tested positive for high lead levels were between 16 ppb to 54 ppb, but two fountains tested much higher than the 15 ppb standard. Two first grade water fountains tested at 110 ppb and 2,890 ppb.

Aside from Morgan, the rest of Hamilton’s testing reflects the same county wide trend of only select locations having high lead levels. Preliminary results showed elevated lead levels in one location in Greenwood, Alexander and Klockner elementary schools, two locations in Lalor and Mercerville, four locations in Wilson and McGalliard, six locations in Kisthardt, seven locations in Robinson and nine locations in Sunnybrae.

Water has been shut off to all of the locations in Hamilton that tested above the acceptable lead level, and the school board is currently working with consultants to better understand the scope of the contamination to create a plan to replace the fixtures.

Testing water for lead contamination is typically a multi-layered process. At least two different tests were done in each district to determine if there was lead in the water and where it was coming from.

The first test is done in the morning before students and staff arrive. These samples are representative of the water from the end point of the water source, such as the tap or bubbler, according to reports from Karl Environmental Group. This test is done once or twice, depending on the consultant.

The next test is the Flow Test, which is representative of the water from the plumbing lines that lead to the collection point. During the flow test, Eldridge said the water runs for 30 seconds before a sample is taken. If the first test came back above 15 ppb, but the Flow Test came back under 15 ppb, then the lead is most likely the fixture itself, since the water spent less time in contact with the fixture during the Flow Test.

Lead contamination in water first gained national attention in 2015 during the crisis in Flint, Michigan. According to The Washington Post, Virginia Tech researchers sampled Flint’s water and found lead levels in some neighborhoods were 158 ppb, with the highest sample found containing 13,000 ppb.

While entire sections of Flint experienced high levels of lead contamination, Mercer County only has select fountains, bubblers and locations. Aside from Morgan Elementary School, no other building had their entire water supply shut down.

The county’s lead levels may not be as extreme as Flint or Newark, but researchers still caution against children consuming any levels of lead. Since their nervous systems haven’t fully developed, children are much more susceptible to the negative effects of lead. According to the World Health Organization, lead affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced IQs, behavioral changes—including a shortened attention span and increased antisocial behavior—and a reduced educational attainment.

Given the effects high levels of lead can have on children, Gov. Chris Christie and state lawmakers introduced legislation in May mandating that all schools test their water for lead, with $10 million set aside to help cover the schools’ costs.

Hamilton, Ewing and Lawrence, however, began testing their water for lead before the governor announced the state’s new legislation. For them, hearing about the lead contamination in other areas across the state and nation was enough to spur them into action.

“We were trying to be proactive. We will test [each year] regardless of not whether or not the law is passed,” Eldridge said, adding that the district plans to test more locations no later than August.

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