MCPS Review Reveals Elevated Lead Levels in Water at 86 Schools

MCPS Review Reveals Elevated Lead Levels in Water at 86 Schools

District says water outlets with elevated readings were taken out of service until repairs can be made

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After a countywide review of school water, elevated lead levels were detected in water outlets at 86 Montgomery County public schools.

Water stations with high-level readings were immediately taken out of commission as the school system has worked through testing since winter, but 153 of the 238 outlets with elevated lead levels had been accessible to students, according to district data finalized last week.

In 2017, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill requiring periodic testing for the presence of lead in each drinking water outlet located in all schools.

The law required all initial testing to be done by July 1.

Montgomery County Public Schools tested 13,248 outlets at 208 school sites. About 1.8 percent of the outlets showed lead levels over 20 parts per billion, a guideline for lead levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and specified in the state law. About 1.1 percent of the water stations with high-lead levels were accessible to students.

A Bethesda Beat analysis of the test reports posted by the school system found that at least 59 drinking fountains, identified in the reports as bubblers, showed high lead levels.

At Flower Hill Elementary School in Gaithersburg, seven of nine high-lead level readings were at drinking fountains. Initial tests captured levels of lead between 31.5 parts per billion and 151 parts per billion. Cold Spring Elementary School in Potomac had five drinking fountains with high-lead levels in initial tests, with readings between 24.2 parts per billion and 79.1 parts per billion.

The highest lead level captured during the testing was 700 parts per billion in water from a kitchen faucet at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington; that reading decreased to 1.3 parts per billion during a follow-up test.

Other high readings captured in initial tests included:

  • An classroom faucet at Rockville’s Farmland Elementary School, the only water outlet with a positive test in that school, which tested at 564 parts per billion in initial testing.
  • A reading of 431 parts per billion at a water faucet at Gaithersburg’s South Lake Elementary School.
  • A drinking fountain at Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary School that registered 356 parts per billion and a classroom faucet at Maryvale Elementary that had an initial reading of 310. Both schools are in Rockville.

In total, 23 schools disclosed initial test results of at least one fixture with readings of 100 parts per billion or more.

MCPS Spokesman Derek Turner said some of the extremely high test readings could be because the water outlets tested hadn’t been used in years.

The Environmental Protection Agency advised lawmakers last year that facilities with intermittent water use patterns, such as schools, may have elevated lead concentrations from plumbing in the facility because the potential for lead to leach into water can increase the longer the water remains in contact with lead in plumbing.

Turner said many of the high initial readings decreased after a second round of testing, but any outlet with a high reading will be kept out of service until repairs can be made.

Repairs are being done through the school system’s existing maintenance budget, Turner said.

Some of the outlets will be pushed out of service permanently, instead of being repaired, he said. “If it’s been four years since anyone’s even turned it on, does it even make sense to bring that back online?”

Turner also noted the school system has been proactive in letting parents know about the testing program. Reports have been posted online, by school site, since earlier this year, with copies sent home to parents, he said.

At a recent Board of Education meeting, Rebecca Morley, the mother of a 7-year-old student at Ashburton Elementary School in Bethesda, discussed the lead testing program.

Morley, who worked on a report about preventing and responding to childhood lead exposure at The Pew Charitable Trusts, encouraged the board to adopt more stringent policies for lead levels in the water.

Morley said the measurement of 20 parts per billion is outdated, and directed the board’s attention to a recent Government Accountability Office report that recommended a lower threshold.

Morley said that other jurisdictions have decided to decrease their thresholds. The Washington, D.C., school system uses 5 parts per billion as its maximum allowable level and Prince George’s County uses 10 parts per billion, Morley said. The state of Illinois recently set a standard of “any detectable level.”

Turner said the school system has taken notice of the recommendation to change the lead level threshold. “It’s something we’re looking deeply at,” he said.

The drinking water tests that were required to be completed by July 1 will provide the first comprehensive look at lead levels in schools across Maryland.

By Dec. 1, the Department of the Environment and State Department of Education must issue a joint report to the General Assembly with the name and address of each school found to have elevated lead levels and details about each water outlet affected by high lead levels.

Children are most susceptible to the effects of lead because their bodies are still developing. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead exposure.

Since 2012, CDC has urged health care providers and authorities to follow up on any young child whose blood shows a level as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter.

According to the Maryland Department of the Environment’s 2017 Childhood Blood Lead Surveillance in Maryland report, the most recent data available, testing revealed 211 children five or younger in Montgomery County had blood lead levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter.

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