By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: May 10, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.
Bottled water being provided where needed as remediation efforts begin
PRINCE GEORGE – New reports from Prince George County Public Schools’ environmental assessment contractors reveal a number of drinking water locations in several county schools were found to have higher-than-acceptable levels of lead, resulting in those fixtures being closed and prepped for flushing and other remediation procedures.
Last Tuesday, letters were sent home to parents that detailed the findings of The EI Group, Inc. Environmental, Health, and Safety Solutions following their mid-April sample collection and analysis of drinking water from dozens of water fixtures in each of the county’s schools and support buildings.
The El Group is the same company that handled air quality sampling at Walton Elementary School and provided remediation steps for PGCPS after the company found mold and other airborne contaminants in a number of rooms at the school.
In the school division’s letter last week, leaders confirmed water samples collected at L.L. Beazley and Walton elementary schools, Prince George Education Center, the bus garage, field house, concession stand, the school division’s maintenance building, and the school board office were found to be “within acceptable ranges” for lead based on state health regulations.
On the other side, the remaining buildings, including N.B. Clements Junior High School, Prince George High School, Moore Middle School, Harrison Middle School, North Elementary, and the school system’s transportation office all had at least one sample from a water fixture test outside of acceptable levels.
The testing was done as part of legislation approved by lawmakers in 2017 which requires local school divisions to “develop and implement a plan to test for led, and if necessary, remediate potable water from sources identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as high priority for testing, including bubbler-style and cooler-style drinking fountains, cafeteria or kitchen taps, classroom combination sinks and drinking fountains, and sinks known to be or visibly used for consumption.”
“Lead is a toxic metal that is detrimental to human health,” The EI Group’s reports to the school division opened. “There is no known value of lead for the human body. Lead can remain in the bloodstream and bodily organs for up to a few months.”
They continue, “Young children, six years of age and younger are at high risk for lead exposure due to frequent hand-to-mouth activity, and because their nervous systems are still undergoing development.”
Of the school division’s buildings that had at least one water fixture with higher than acceptable lead levels, the vast majority of samples from those buildings did not exceed acceptable levels, with an average of 30 to nearly 60 samples being collected at the each of the school buildings, and with smaller numbers at offices and other facilities.
According to The EI Group’s reports, Clements Junior High School and Prince George High School had the most fixtures, six, that exceeded acceptable levels of the 30 samples collected at the junior high school and 48 samples taken at the high school on April 19.
Those six samples from Clements came from six different eyewash stations at the school, with one sample, “Eyewash Station Room 226,” registering at 5,190 parts per billion for lead, well above the EPA’s maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water of 15 parts per billion. The other stations measured anywhere from as low as 16.3 to as high as 122 parts per billion of lead.
A short drive away at Prince George High School, six different samples from sinks across the facility were found to have higher than acceptable lead levels, with the “Room B8 Sink” measuring at 311 ppb for lead, the highest in the building. The other five sinks ranged from as low as 18.6 ppb to 152 ppb.
The EI Group’s report found Moore Middle School and Harrison and North elementary schools each had four samples from fixtures that exceeded acceptable levels.
Of these three schools, North Elementary School had the most water samples collected during The EI Group’s collection on April 19 as 63 individual samples were collected. According to their report on the school, four of those samples were measured to have levels exceeding acceptable levels for lead, all of them being four sinks in different rooms in the school. Of those four, two samples were just over the EPA’s threshold for acceptable levels at 17 ppb while sinks in Room 217 and 222 were measured at 31.2 ppb and 41.3 ppb, respectively.
52 samples were collected from Moore Middle School during last month’s survey, according to the company’s reports, and, similar to N.B. Clements Junior High School, all of the problem samples were collected from eyewash stations, with levels ranging from as low as 15.1 ppg to as high as 20.4, just off the 15 ppg maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water set by the EPA.
Over at Harrison Elementary, three of the higher than acceptable samples were collected “fountains” in the school, likely referring to drinking fountains, which the 2017 state law requiring the development of drinking water testing for lead by school divisions specifically notes as “high priority for testing.” Of the four samples, the highest levels were found at, what the company called, “Fountain by Book Room and Room 102,” measuring at 61.6 parts per billion.
Fountains in Room 151 and Room 117 were found to have levels of 18.4 ppb and 26 ppb, respectively, while a copy room sink measured at 26.7 ppb.
The school division’s transportation office, of their three samples, had one that exceeded acceptable levels, with a second-floor kitchen sink that was tested found to have a lead contaminant level of 31.7 ppb.
While eyewash stations and some sinks in some school rooms were identified as having higher than acceptable levels, none of The EI Group’s analysis found increased levels of lead in cafeteria-area sinks they measured and the vast majority of fountains tested by the company were found to be within acceptable levels. Notably, of the nearly 220 samples listed by The EI Group as having originated from fountains, only three, all at Harrison Elementary, were measured as having levels that exceeded acceptable levels, just over one percent of all sampled fountains.
In addition, of the nearly 350 samples collected at the school buildings, where students are more likely to be present, 24 of those samples exceeded acceptable levels or just over seven percent.
In their letter to parents, school officials said the buildings were elevated levels were found “are being addressed based on the recommendations from The EI Group.” In their report, the company directed the school division to proceed with “follow-up flush sampling in order to pinpoint the source (fixtures, or interior plumbing) of each sink and fountain’s water contamination.”
The EI Group also advised the PGCPS to discontinue use of the affected water fixtures until “follow-up flush sampling has been completed.”
According to the letter signed by school superintendent Renee Williams and assistant superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff, the affected areas “will be closed off until they have been remediated and retested,” adding “Bottled water will be provided in the locations needed,” which may include some of the classrooms where sinks were found to be above acceptable levels.
As aging infrastructure and the continued issues in Flint, Michigan following lead contamination of their water supply remain in the headlines, addressing the issue as quickly risen up the list of priorities for state and federal officials.
In a 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “An estimated 43 percent of school districts, serving 35 million students, tested for lead in school drinking water in 2016 or 2017,” based on their nationwide survey of school divisions. Of those surveyed who conducted testing, “an estimated 37 percent found elevated lead” and those districts “reported taking steps to reduce or eliminate exposure to lead, including replacing water fountains, installing filters or new fixtures, or providing bottled water.”
No federal laws require testing of drinking water for lead in schools that get their water from public systems but, Virginia is among only 15 states and the District of Columbia to either require or encourage some form of testing, something the U.S Green Building Council would like to see changed.
“Access to safe drinking water is a fundamental human right, and every school that has not been tested could potentially be exposing students to contaminated water and the risk of adverse health effects,” said Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools. “Schools and school district leaders should be able to inform parents about whether drinking water outlets have been tested. Unfortunately, very few states have passed laws ensuring that all schools obtain and provide parents with this critical information. It is important for community stakeholders and parents to advocate to their school board and state representatives to take action.”
According to the school division’s letter, questions regarding the testing can be directed to Ron Rhodes, the school division’s director or operations at 804-733-2700.