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Lead Levels Ebb on Second Tests

Concern over preliminary tests prompts second round. But results show no widespread contamination.

With a second round of tests out of the way, the fears of lead contamination in Arlington’s water supply subsided for the moment. But county officials say that they are still working to test water quality in the county.

Last week, Arlington health officials announced that preliminary tests showed some elevated lead levels in county water, and vowed to conduct further tests. Yesterday, the county announced that there is no widespread lead contamination in county water systems.

After three weeks spent assuring county residents that Arlington was not at risk for the lead worries plaguing District residents, county officials did an about face last Tuesday afternoon, announcing that significant lead levels had been detected in preliminary tests at a handful of sites. Initial newspaper stories on high lead levels in District water pointed to lead pipes carrying water into homes, but now attention is focusing on water treatment processes.

Arlington Public Schools notified parents about what they should do to protect children most vulnerable to lead ingestion. Samples from all county schools, from daycare centers, some private homes and fire hydrants around the county were tested for lead, using samples collected after water sat in pipes for extended periods and after running for 30-60 seconds.

Of 354 samples collected around the county, only 12 showed lead levels above the “action level” of 15 parts per billion set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

<b>COUNTY AND SCHOOL OFFICIALS</b> hailed the results as an indication that the county’s water treatment system, and the county’s infrastructure, were not adding lead to local water. But since water samples from five schools still contained lead above EPA action levels, there was a promise of future action.

School officials will now focus on the Ashlawn and Campbell elementary schools, the H.B.-Woodlawn Secondary School building and the Reed and Wilson school centers. Some water samples at those buildings tested positive for high lead levels, while others did not.

As a precaution, school officials have shut off water fountains in all buildings, replacing them with temporary water coolers. Additional tests will be conducted at those schools, and school administrators will consider what other steps to take when more test results are available.

While they waited to see test results, most Arlington parents did not appear to be upset with the situation. The County Council of PTAs has taken no action on the issue, and other parents are keeping similarly cool heads.

“It didn’t occur to me to worry about it,” said Jean Christensen, whose 11-year-old daughter attends Glebe Elementary School. “They’re saying we should cook with cold water, and the schools sent a letter home. I don’t know that there’s anything else they can do.”

<b>THE HIGHEST LEAD LEVEL,</b> in initial tests, was almost 20 times an “action level” dictated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But the director of county utilities said that kind of test result posed a quandary: wait for better information, or let the public know what’s happening at every step of the way.

“This is very, very preliminary stuff,” said Randy Bartlett, county director of infrastructure and operations. “The decision we had to make was, if you have the preliminary information, do you verify it before you start things in motion, or do you let people know? What we decided was, let people know.”

Part of getting the information out, he said, was letting people know what the EPA defines as “significant lead levels.” The kind of warning issued in Arlington last week comes when tests show 15 or more parts of lead per one billion parts of water.

That doesn’t necessarily translate to a health risk, said Bartlett. “The way the EPA’s lead and copper rule was written, it’s not tied to a health standard. The action level is designed to help optimize how water is treated.”

School superintendent Robert Smith echoed that caveat to alarmists at the School Board meeting on Thursday, March 11. Indications of lead in water, he said, are not the same thing as finding lead in blood. “We don’t know that lead in water correlates to lead in blood,” said Smith.

He pointed to routine blood tests performed since 2000 on 1,987 children at the county’s Child Health Clinic. “Of nearly 2,000 children, they found only 16 with elevated lead levels,” said Smith.

Lead levels in drinking water pose the biggest threat to children under 6, and to pregnant and nursing mothers. High lead levels in the blood can lead to delayed mental or physical development in infants and young children. “The real concern is from lead paint,” said Bartlett. “That’s where the bigger risk is.”

<b>TO CHECK WHERE</b> the threat is the largest, the county and schools took water samples from all Arlington elementary schools last Wednesday, March 10, and drew samples at all county middle and high schools on Thursday.

“They take a first-draw sample,” said Bartlett: county staff went to school fountains and sinks between 6:30 and 7 a.m., before students arrived. Staffers drew water from two water fountains and a sink, ran the water for 30 seconds and collected a second sample. Those samples were sent to a laboratory at the end of last week, and results should come back to the county this Friday, March 19. “We will make them public,” said Smith.

Still, he said, there was little need for most county residents, or even parents, to “change habits. It takes a while to build up lead levels in the blood, and the amount ingested in school is probably not enough.”