Six Tacoma schools now reporting lead in drinking water

High lead levels have been reported at four additional schools in Tacoma Tuesday morning.

School district officials said there are high levels of lead in isolated spots at Whittier, Delong and Manitou Park elementary schools, along with Madison Head Start Program, which is a part of Tacoma Public Schools.

Key Developments: 

  • Some water tested as high as some of the homes in Flint Michigan’s water crisis. Explanation of level ranges below. 
  • Tests were conducted nearly a year ago, but results weren't reviewed by district until Friday. Monday night, a district team discovered 4 more reports.
  • The district says the problem isn't the water itself but may be the faucets and fixtures in the school.
  • Tacoma Schools has placed an employee on paid administrative leave pending investigation for water quality testing and reporting.
  • The district shut off all water sources and handed out bottled water to students and staff members at Horace Mann and Jennie Reed. Bottled water has been ordered for the four other schools.
  • Samples were taken at Horace Mann and Jennie Reed schools Tuesday morning.
  • All schools in the city will be tested for lead contamination. Testing will take several weeks to complete.
  • Find team coverage, resources on lead in water at this link.

Tacoma Public Schools decided to test their own water after lead was found in four homes near Lincoln High School.

The lead levels prompted advisories in Tacoma and Seattle for public utility customers to run their tap water before drinking it. That contamination is being caused by old gooseneck fittings connecting the homes to the water main. What's causing the high lead levels at the schools isn't known.

The announcement about problems at additional schools comes after lead testing was done at Mann and Jennie Reed elementary school early Tuesday morning. The testing was done after Tacoma Schools found two results from May 2015 that had not been reviewed. Results “showed unacceptable levels of lead in the water,” according to the district.

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Authorities say the two public elementary schools were found to have high levels of lead in their drinking water contained up to 116 times more lead than a district standard allows.

Lead in water is measured in terms of parts per billion (ppb). If a test comes back with lead levels higher than 15 ppb, the EPA recommends that homeowners and municipalities take steps to reduce that level.

A preliminary analysis of the water quality testing from May 2015 at Reed and Mann elementary schools indicates that:

At Reed: Testing was done at 59 locations. 39 of those locations showed lead levels above 20 ppb. The levels ranged from 5 ppb to 2330 ppb.

At Mann: Testing was done at 69 locations. 23 of those locations showed lead levels above 20 ppb. The levels ranged from with 0 to 784 ppb.

That means some water tested as high as some of the homes in Flint Michigan’s water crisis. The highest level found in Flint was 13,000 ppb. 

According to a Washington Post article, a cause for concern can start at 5 ppb. A team examining Flint's water crisis says 5 ppb is below the borderline for EPA acceptability, but they say levels this high can be a cause for concern, particularly for young children.

“We have very, very high contamination from lead in multiple locations in both schools,” said Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel.

It’s unclear if the water with the highest levels were consumed at the Tacoma schools.

On Tuesday, the district  said it is conducting an "immediate, complete audit of all past water quality test results, testing procedures, maintenance practices and communications to ensure – moving forward – there is a much better system in place."

A contractor took new samples at Mann and Reed Tuesday before school. Technicians collected samples from hundreds of locations from classrooms, water fountains, to kitchen areas. It is not yet known when the results  of those tests will be in.

“We hope to get results back quickly and accurately,” said Voepel.

Four more schools found to have high lead in drinking water in isolated locations.

Monday night, a district team reviewing records discovered four additional test reports from May 2015 that showed:

  • ​At Madison site, 60 water sources were tested. Of those, 3 isolated locations tested higher than the acceptable level of lead.
  • At DeLong Elementary School, 116 water sources were tested. Of those 7 isolated locations tested higher than the acceptable level of lead.
  • At Whittier Elementary School, 53 water sources were tested. Of those 2 isolated locations tested higher than the acceptable level of lead.
  • At Manitou Park Elementary School, 76 water sources were tested. Of those 4 isolated locations tested higher than the acceptable level of lead.

"At this time, it does not appear that any steps were taken (a year ago) to correct the problems at those locations. The vast majority of water at those locations showed no problems," a post on the district web site said.

In the meantime, the school district has ordered bottled water, shut off all water sources, and blocked access to the schools' drinking fountains until the district can determine the quality of the water at those specific locations and take steps to fix any issues.

The district is now trying to determine how, and why, test results showing high lead contamination sat without being reviewed for nearly a year.

“We’re investigating that right now,” Voelpel said. “They were overlooked when they came in, that’s unacceptable.”

The district's district's safety and environmental health manager has been placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into the testing and reporting protocol. No name has been released as the investigation is underway.

The Board of Health required all schools begin testing for lead in the water back in 2009, but lawmakers never provided any money to cover those tests.

The district says the problem isn't the water itself but may be the faucets and fixtures in the school.

Parents KIRO 7 spoke with said they are unhappy and scared.

(I’m) very scared,” said Larry Mais, who has an 8-year-old son at Reed Elementary School. “Because it could affect kids very dearly.”

Shelly Williams was dropping off her 10-year-old daughter at Reed Tuesday morning. She says her fourth- grader has been coming to this school since she started first grade.

“That’s a long time to be exposed to lead and parents not to know,” said Williams.

The Tacoma Pierce County Health Department is stopping short of advising parents take action and have their children tested for lead exposure.

“If a parent, if a teacher is concerned they should check in with their healthcare provider,” said department communications head Edie Jeffers.

The school district provided a FAQ Monday: 

How long will the students be drinking bottled water?

Indefinitely until the district can determine the quality of the water and take steps to fix any issues that are uncovered.

How many bottles of water is each student allowed throughout the day?

Students and staff are allowed as many bottles as they need.

Is bottled water being used for food preparation?

Yes.

Are you testing water at all of the schools district-wide?

Yes. [Tacoma Schools is] working on a plan to test every school.

What will happen in Tuesday morning's testing? 

A water sampling contractor will take new water samples from dozens of locations at both Mann and Reed elementary schools Tuesday morning before school. Every location in the schools that could be used as a drinking water source will be tested, including but not limited to kitchen and restroom sinks, drinking fountains and classroom sinks. Those samples will be sent to a testing lab, and [Tacoma Schools]  hopes to have the results back by Wednesday. Meanwhile, [Tacoma Schools]  will continue to provide bottled water to both schools until we have the results back, identify all locations with high lead content and fix those problem areas. (Note: Technicians told KIRO Tuesday it was "ambitious" to think the results would be in by Wednesday).

How long will it take to receive water test results?

[Tacoma Schools is]  not sure yet how long the testing and results will take.

When you have test results, will you share them publicly?

Yes.

How many schools have been tested?

[Tacoma Schools'] preliminary analysis indicates our voluntary testing program began about 2012. Only at the elementary schools. And only several each year on a rotation. [Tacoma Schools is]  still compiling records to determine how many schools were tested, what the results were and what, if anything, was done to fix any higher than acceptable lead levels.

Where can I find more information about lead?

Please visit the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department's webpage on lead​ frequently asked questions and resources.