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Parents Seek Their Own Answers

Some parents take testing water for lead into their own hands.

Nancy Silver just couldn’t wait. After several Montgomery County schools tested positive for elevated lead levels, she wanted to know the status at her daughter’s school, Potomac Elementary. “When the whole thing first came out, we were curious,” Silver said.

The school system began testing when increased lead levels in other jurisdictions raised awareness of the problem in general. The tests showed elevated lead levels – above the federal standard of 20 parts per billion – in each of the first nine schools which were tested.

So far, the school system has collected samples from 20 schools and has 20 more on the list to be tested. But Potomac Elementary is not yet on the list. “We thought, ‘It’s a pretty old school,’” Silver said.

Silver has a background in physiology and in public health, so she thought it was important to know the situation. “I’m very sensitive to the lead,” she said.

She sought approval from the Principal of the school before proceeding.

So she went to a local hardware store and bought a kit to test the amount of lead in the water. The kits sell for about $13, and then the samples are shipped to a lab in Florida, which charges another $15, Silver said.

Silver purchased five of the test kits, four for the school’s water and one for her own home. “There’s no way I can test every spigot in the school,” she said.

In response to the contamination issues, the schools system put into place a policy in place to flush the water in every drinking fountain for 15 minutes every four hours. By the time Silver got to school, the flushing had been done, so she tested samples from several bathroom sinks which are not typically flushed.

Silver stressed that she does not expect the school system, or the health department, to use her results. And they couldn’t really use them, anyway, say officials at both places.

“There is a need for conformity for how these tests are done,” said Donna Bigler, spokesperson for the Montgomery County Health Department. All of the tests from each school are being analyzed by the WSSC lab.

“The Health Department is building an analytic sample, that analytic sample has a level of integrity,” said Brian Porter, spokesperson for Montgomery County Public Schools. “Those will be the data used by the Health Department.”

Neither the Health Department nor the school system has a problem with parents who wish to have the lead tested independently, as long as they receive approval from the principal and realize that the data will not be accepted for purposes of determining a remediation strategy.

Bigler does warn that potential testers should be careful of the kits they use. “They should be very careful that they’re using a certified lab,” she said.

Of the samples she sent in, Silver has gotten three back. Two of those were from the school, and tested at 0.2 parts per billion, well within the safe level. The third was from her home which was also safe. “I was happy to see that my house was OK,” she said.

Even though the samples tested at safe levels, Silver advises her daughter to bring bottled water to school with her. “It doesn’t make sense not just to avoid the whole situation,” she said.