Par­ents De­mand New Tests of School Wa­ter

Let­ter to EPA Airs Dis­trust Over Ear­lier Method­ol­ogy, Of­fi­cial As­sur­ances About Find­ings

The Washington Post Sunday - - D.c. Sunday - By Carol D. Leon­nig

A group of Wash­ing­ton area par­ents and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists has for­mally de­manded that the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency or­der new tests of wa­ter in D.C. pub­lic schools, say­ing they don’t trust lo­cal of­fi­cials’ as­sur­ances that some un­usu­ally high lead lev­els de­tected in school wa­ter in re­cent months were “iso­lated” find­ings.

The par­ents con­tend that they’ve been mis­led be­fore about the sever­ity of lead prob­lems in the city’s wa­ter sup­ply. In a let­ter last week to the EPA, they ar­gued that the D.C. school sys­tem’s method for broader sys­temwide test­ing in Fe­bru­ary was skewed to reg­is­ter ar­ti­fi­cially lower lead lev­els. They said lo­cal and fed­eral of­fi­cials have given un­clear and con­flict­ing an­swers when ques­tioned about the test­ing method’s ac­cu­racy.

“We are very alarmed about the safety of our chil­dren, and no­body is giv­ing us any straight an­swers,” said Yanna Lam­brinidou of Par­ents for Non-Toxic Al­ter­na­tives, which joined in urg­ing the EPA to in­ter­vene. “I have a ba­sic ques­tion as a par­ent: Is the wa­ter safe for my child to drink at the foun­tain?”

The let­ter was sent on be­half of 50 par­ents, joined by or­ga­ni­za­tions such as Clean Wa­ter Ac­tion, the D.C. chap­ter of Friends of the Earth and the Cen­ter for Health En­vi­ron­ment and Jus­tice.

The par­ents ex­pressed con­cern that high lead read­ings in drink­ing wa­ter at five schools could sig­nal a city­wide prob­lem. High lead lev­els are of­ten a sign of dan­ger­ously cor­ro­sive wa­ter and posed a ma­jor health haz­ard in the city from late 2001 to 2004, af­ter which the wa­ter util­ity changed the chem­i­cals it used to treat the wa­ter.

Fed­eral and lo­cal wa­ter util­ity of­fi­cials say they have no fear of a city­wide wa­ter prob­lem and note that re­quired sam­pling in­di­cates the sup­ply’s lead lev­els fall be­low the fed­eral thresh­old for con­cern.

EPA of­fi­cials based in the Philadel­phia re­gional of­fice, who are re­spon­si­ble for mon­i­tor­ing the qual­ity of the Dis­trict’s wa­ter, said they are re­view­ing the par­ents’ al­le­ga­tions and had no im­me­di­ate re­sponse to the de­mand for more test­ing.

Tests con­ducted from June to Jan­uary found that 30 to 80 per­cent of the wa­ter foun­tains and taps in the five schools had el­e­vated, un­safe lead lev­els; all told, 16 schools were tested. One foun­tain in a kinder­garten class had a lead read­ing of 1,200 parts per bil­lion. The EPA rec­om­mends that lead lev­els in school drink­ing wa­ter not ex­ceed 20 parts per bil­lion and urges that schools seek to re­duce the amount to as close to zero as pos­si­ble.

The school sys­tem did not in­form par­ents or school board mem­bers about the re­sults, which be­came pub­lic only af­ter a D.C Coun­cil hear­ing. At the urg­ing of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), the school sys­tem be­gan fast-tracked test­ing at all schools and re­ported this month that it gen­er­ally found safe lead lev­els.

The group of par­ents and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists makes two cen­tral al­le­ga­tions. The first is that the school sys­tem has tried to give them false as­sur­ances, is­su­ing news re­leases with the “good news” that 87 per­cent of the re- cent school tests met fed­eral stan­dards. But on fur­ther ques­tion­ing, par­ents learned that at least one wa­ter foun­tain, cooler or sink in about three­quar­ters of 129 city schools for which data were avail­able had el­e­vated, un­safe lev­els of lead.

The sec­ond is the con­tention that the school sys­tem’s test­ing method ar­ti­fi­cially low­ered the sys­temwide lead test re­sults. At the urg­ing of the D.C. Wa­ter and Sewer Author­ity and with the EPA’s knowl­edge, the school sys­tem flushed the wa­ter in each of the tested schools for 45 to 50 min­utes be­fore tak­ing sam­ples. WASA dis­trib­utes the city’s drink­ing wa­ter.

Paul L. Tay­lor Jr., a fa­cil­i­ties main­te­nance of­fi­cial of the school sys­tem, said the city used a cer­ti­fied lab­o­ra­tory for the tests and de­vel­oped the pro­ce­dures in con­sul­ta­tion with WASA and the EPA.

But the par­ents and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists said the schools don’t flush wa­ter pipes ev­ery morn­ing be­fore chil­dren drink from the foun­tains, so the tests do not re­flect the risks.

They ar­gued that WASA and the EPA knew such flush­ing would re­duce lead lev­els, say­ing that dur­ing the city’s lead cri­sis, both agen­cies urged res­i­dents to run the tap for 10 min­utes be­fore con­sum­ing the wa­ter.

Wa­ter that is not prop­erly treated can be­come highly cor­ro­sive, then leach lead out of lead and brass plumb­ing fix­tures and pipes, and make tap wa­ter haz­ardous to pub­lic health. Lead is a toxic metal, and ex­po­sure even at low lev­els has been proved to cause de­vel­op­men­tal and be­hav­ioral prob­lems among chil­dren and in­fants.

Rick Rogers, an EPA of­fi­cial who has led a fed­eral team try­ing to re­duce lead in the wa­ter since dan­ger­ous amounts of the metal were found in thou­sands of D.C. homes in 2004, said he is sure those ef­forts are work­ing. High lead lev­els in schools are just an­other ex­am­ple of an “elu­sive” lead prob­lem in large build­ings that the EPA can’t ex­plain.

“I don’t be­lieve it is a broader prob­lem in the Dis­trict’s wa­ter,” Rogers said, not­ing that city­wide test­ing last year showed over­all lead con­cen­tra­tions of 10 to 12 parts per bil­lion. “Lead city­wide is look­ing very low, very good,” he said.

EPA re­gional en­force­ment of­fi­cial Karen John­son, who has been ad­vis­ing the school sys­tem on test­ing, de­clined to com­ment on the va­lid­ity of the school test­ing pro­to­col and stressed that the EPA has no le­gal author­ity to force schools to ad­dress the prob­lem of lead found in their wa­ter.

WASA Gen­eral Man­ager Jerry N. John­son said he couldn’t com­ment on the ac­cu­racy of the school test­ing method or the safety of school wa­ter.

“That’s a schools is­sues,” he said. “All I’m say­ing is we’re de­liv­er­ing wa­ter to the schools that meets EPA re­quire­ments.”

John­son said a top WASA wa­ter qual­ity of­fi­cial rec­om­mended flush­ing the faucets for 50 min­utes be­cause the wa­ter in the foun­tains and taps be­ing tested had not been used for two weeks and be­cause such sit­ting wa­ter would not be typ­i­cal of ev­ery­day use. The 50-minute flush was ap­proved by the EPA, he said. EPA of­fi­cials said they pro­vided tech­ni­cal ad­vice but did not ap­prove the flush­ing time.

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