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District testing finds lead problems in water system: remedies under way

Friday, August 17, 2001

As part of its ongoing program to investigate all its buildings for environmental concerns, Portland Public Schools began testing drinking water for lead and copper last month.

The district announced today that results from 40 buildings have been received, and 35 of the 40 buildings have at least one drinking fountain that tests over the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recommended action level for lead. The recommended action level for lead is 15 parts per billion (ppb). Out of 600 samples taken in the Portland district, three were above 100 ppb, with the highest being 162 ppb.

Copper was detected in a handful of samples, but lead is the more serious issue.

“Right now we feel it is prudent to turn off all drinking water faucets in all schools, whether they have been tested yet or not,” said Portland Public Schools Interim Superintendent Jim Scherzinger. "Five-gallon water dispensers will be supplied to all schools as an added measure of safety and to give us time to make needed repairs."

Water dispensers will stay in a school until retesting on all drinking water faucets shows they are below the EPA action level.

Scherzinger said the initial tests were taken according to an EPA protocol that looks at “worst case” conditions. The tests were taken on water that had sat in faucets and pipes for 8 – 18 hours, allowing time for lead and copper to leach into water.

“This is not the water people usually drink," Scherzinger noted. Since 1988, the district has had procedures where custodians flush pipes each morning to reduce lead and iron. “Now we are making permanent changes so we aren’t relying solely on flushing," he said.

Scherzinger said that most of the problems stem from drinking water faucets, also called “bubblers.” He noted that there are probably some problem pipes as well.

The district will immediately begin to replace all problem bubblers, add in-line water filters and, where needed, replace pipes. Repairs will be paid for with facility bond funds, and will not affect money designated for instruction.

In high enough quantities, lead can cause developmental problems, particularly in children under two years of age. According to the EPA, lead in water is almost never the sole cause of serious problems. Deteriorating lead-based paint, usually in the home, is by far the most important way young children are exposed to lead.

“National data tells us that lead in water is a minor contributor to elevated lead levels, said Gary Oxman, M.D., Multnomah County Health Officer. “In dozens of investigations of children with elevated blood levels in Multnomah County, drinking water has never been implicated as an important source of exposure.”

Dr. Oxman further advised parents that because lead has been found in Portland Public Schools water they do not need to rush out to get their child tested. “If you’re worried about your child and lead, your real concern should be whether they are exposed to deteriorating lead-paint,” he said.

Scherzinger emphasized that lead from all sources needs to be kept as low as possible, and that the district is being very aggressive in doing that. The district has not used lead paint since 1974.

"We had a complaint-driven system before to address problems such as peeling paint; now we are proactively inspecting and repairing all buildings. We urge all parents to look for and reduce potential sources of lead at home as well,” he said.

The Portland district first tested its water in 1991, and was one of the first in the state to do so. Twenty-three schools had one or more samples over the EPA action level at that time. Because flushing is one of EPA’s recommended interim options for lowering lead, the district continued with its water-flushing program.

“It’s now time for permanent changes,” Scherzinger said.

Anyone wanting more information on lead-based paint should contact their health care provider, leave a message on the Multnomah County Lead Line, or check the State Health Services Website. The number for the lead line is 503 988-4000. The Web site is www.ohd.hr.state.or.us/eoe/welcome.htm.

You can find individual school results here.

Parent letter

Water Q & A

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