Elevated Lead Levels in Potomac Schools

Elevated Lead Levels in Potomac Schools

Every school tested has elevated lead levels; many schools do not yet have test results back.

Every public school tested in Potomac, and the rest of the county, had lead levels in water samples well above what the Environmental Protection Agency deems safe.

In Montgomery County Public Schools water quality data updated Sept. 16, all 68 of the schools tested had lead levels greater than 20 parts per billion (ppb) in samples taken from one or more of its water sources.

Samples have been collected from all of 192 county schools and educational facilities. Months after the initial problems were discovered, school officials have yet to release the test results for more than 120 schools. Chuck Brown, spokesman for Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), said that results for all 26,000 samples WSSC received from Montgomery County Public Schools were delivered to the schools on Sept. 15.

"We're proud to provide the lab tests and the technical lab support free of charge," to the schools, he said. "And that's going to run us probably over $1 million for both [Montgomery and Price George's counties]." Brown said testing for each sample takes about five days to complete.

"We have the vast majority of them," said Lynne Zarate, an environmental safety coordinator with MCPS. For the samples that are in hand she said that officials are working to analyze the data, which will be released in batches. "It's important to remember that this is just the preliminary data," she said and that the highest samples will be retested. "In the grand scheme of things we're looking at May," before results will be confirmed and remediaton can begin, Zarate said.

The “action level” for schools is 20 ppb; schools and day care centers are governed by a different EPA rule than residences, where the action level is 15 ppb. The school action level is actually stricter, said Brown, because the level applies to all of the schools' water sources while the residential rule only requires that 90 percent of tested sources fall below that level.

The samples come back individually rather than being grouped by school, said Kate Harrison, assistant director of communications for Montgomery County Public Schools, and compiling the data takes time.

A letter sent to parents Sept. 13 and signed by Superintendent Jerry Weast and County Health Officer Ulder Tillman stated that “no pattern for the lead problem has been identified” as high levels have been found in both new and older schools. An interagency task force, involving the Office of the County Executive, the Department of Environmental Protection, WSSC, the health department, and the school system” is working on the problem and the investigation is expected to continue for several months.

In the meantime, all but eight of the county’s schools have implemented EPA-recommended flushing procedures. Because most lead contamination comes from pipes and solder, water that has been standing in tanks, coolers or pipes is more likely to have elevated lead levels than water that has just flowed in, periodic flushing of the systems, allowing the water to run, helps reduce lead levels. School water coolers are flushed for 15 minutes every four hours while all other designated drinking sources are flushed for one minute every four hours. The flushing begins before students enter the building and continues as long as the building is in use each day.

"We are actually following EPA guidelines in terms of the flushing and we have been assured by the director of Department of Health that the water is safe to drink," Harrison said.

Of the eight schools that are not using the flushing procedures, two use bottled water, one has a water filtration system that was installed to address an earlier problem and five have been removed from the requirement by the health department, having test results below action levels.

The data released so far includes results for nine of the 18 schools in the Churchill, Whitman, and Wootton clusters — eight elementary schools and one middle school. No data has been released for any of the three high schools.

At the nine Potomac area schools tested, 18.25 percent of all water sources had high lead levels (above 20 ppb).

At Seven Locks Elementary, one out of three water sources tested above 20 ppb. "I'm concerned about it," said Amy Gleklen of the Seven Locks PTA. "I don't know why it’s not a priority. That bothers me."

The highest level recorded was 2694.2 ppb at Travilah Elementary, about 180 times the EPA action level. However, only 4 percent of sources at Travilah had elevated levels. The second highest in the Potomac area was Wayside Elementary at 2129 ppb.

“The highest sources are not from things like bubblers and drinking fountains. The tendency is for these high levels to be in places like building maintenance sinks," Harrison said. Similarly, the data released by MCPS noted that the high samples “include remote sites (such as sink faucets).” For schools whose data has been released, parents can call the school office to find out specifically which water sources yeilded the highest lead levels. That information is not included in the materials made available by MCPS.

Brown said that it is not unusual for a school to have a large number of water sources with relatively low lead levels and a few with extremely high ones. "School testing to date indicates a limited onsite fixture related problem," he said. Certain brass and copper fixtures give off more lead than other plumbing fixtures. Flushing is a temporary measure but the long term solution, he said, is to replace the fixtures.

For most of the county’s schools, there is nothing more to do but wait.

“We’re using the whole water flushing procedure,” said Principal Linda Goldberg of Potomac Elementary. “We’re just waiting it out like the rest of them.”

Winston Churchill High School was renovated in the 2000-01 and 2001-02 school years, and Laura Siegel of Churchill’s PTSA believes that is the main reason there isn’t much concern about it in the school community.

“It hasn't been something that we've received a lot of calls about,” said Siegel. But as the school and the adjacent Herbert Hoover Middle School await results, Siegel doesn’t understand the delay.

“I'm not sure why it's taken MCPS so long to get answers,” she said. “I personally think the procedure can move quicker.