Six months after the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission delivered complete lead testing results to Montgomery County Public Schools, school officials have released data for all 190 school buildings and other educational facilities.
School officials are working to formulate a remediation plan.
"I'm hopeful that that's something that we’ll be able to release shortly. It will be made public as soon as it is complete," said Kate Harrison, a spokesperson for MCPS.
But some parents are frustrated with the delays. “Our kids are there; we shouldn’t have to wonder what’s going on,” said Laura Siegel, a Churchill parent. “It’s not just one or two schools; it seems to be really widespread.”
In a Feb. 8 action, the Board of Education requested a $1.6 million special appropriation from the County Council to begin replacing fixtures.
"This special appropriation will enable us to develop specific remediation and work plans for schools that have complete test results and lead source assessment," School Superintendent Jerry Weast wrote in a memorandum to the Board of Education. "These plans will include steps to allow schools with the lead source confined to fixtures to safely discontinue the current flushing protocol."
MCPS is still working to distinguish between schools where water fixtures are at fault from those where internal plumbing is the problem.
"What we have jurisdiction over is the fixtures and the piping within the school and we want to be sure that we replace the right thing," Harrison said. "There were about 2,600 areas that were sampled that require a second testing that allows them to differentiate between whether it’s the piping or the fixtures."
THE TESTING DATA show high readings at every school, but the high readings “include remote sites (such as sink faucets),” according to the information released by MCPS. Since October, the data released have included a column listing the highest lead level from a water cooler at each school. Otherwise, there is no information linking readings to specific sources. The water cooler-only information was included at a parent’s request.
According Harrison, "The largest amounts of lead were typically in remote areas. Maybe in service sinks, in basements that aren’t used very much."
Among 14 Potomac schools, an average of 21 percent of all water sources yielded readings above 20 parts per billion (ppb), the Environmental Protection Agency-set “action level.” Worst off were Herbert Hoover Middle School, where 46 percent of all water sources had elevated lead, and Seven Locks Elementary, where one in three water sources had high levels. Least affected were Travilah Elementary and Bells Mill Elementary, with only 4 and 9 percent yielding high readings, respectively.
The highest overall level at a Potomac school was 24,319 parts per billion at Hoover, more than 1200 times the action level. The average high reading at Potomac schools was 3196 ppb.
Still, only three of the 14 schools had high lead values in samples taken from water coolers. At Walt Whitman High School, the highest water cooler value was 109.5 ppb, more than five times the action level. The high water cooler readings in Potomac averaged 12.7 — well under the action level standard.
WSSC BEGAN TESTING samples from MCPS sites in March, 2004. By Sept. 15, it had electronically delivered a complete set of results for all 192 facilities, according to Chuck Brown, WSSC spokesperson. But MCPS requested retesting of many of the high samples.
All told, WSSC tested 33,164 samples — free of charge — for MCPS: a reported value of $600,000. WSSC declared last month that all testing, including resampling, was complete, although Brown admits that the commission is still juggling some “anomalies.”
“This is like resampling resamples again now,” he said. “These 3,000 are anomalies where it isn’t clear where they fall.”
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 considered stricter 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 water flowing into Montgomery County Schools is the same water flowing into most of the county’s homes — part of the 167 million gallons per day handled by WSSC’s filtration plants. And mandatory sampling of residential water has revealed safe lead levels each testing cycle since 1992. Homes were last tested in 2002 and are currently being tested again.
The conclusion is that the high lead levels in schools are caused by corrosion from certain plumbing fixtures, especially older brass and copper fixtures and copper solder.
"School testing to date indicates a limited on-site fixture-related problem," said Chuck Brown, a spokesman for WSSC. “Water hasn’t flowed out of these hose bibs or sinks, some of them, for quite a long time.”
But if the problem is so clear, some parents wonder, why hasn’t there been a quicker solution. Prince George’s County Schools, which was tested concurrently with Montgomery County, has already begun replacing fixtures system-wide.
“We’ve been getting these numbers reported, without hearing about any kind of plan,” said Siegel. “They keep on testing, testing, testing.”
Nearly a year after identifying its own problem, MCPS is still relying on it’s temporary solution — daily flushing.
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.
But, Siegel said, “We can’t do that forever.”