High levels of lead found in water at 4 more Tacoma schools

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SEATTLE (AP) — Tacoma Public Schools announced Tuesday that tests performed last May found high levels of lead in the drinking water at four additional schools.

The district on Monday informed parents of high levels of lead found at two other elementary schools, Mann and Reed. On Monday night, it discovered the other test reports while reviewing records.

The district said high levels of lead were found in isolated locations at Whittier, DeLong and Manitou Park elementary schools as well as the Madison Head Start program during the May 2015 tests. But a news release says "it does not appear that any steps were taken to correct the problems at those locations."

Unlike Mann and Reed, which had widespread lead issues throughout the building, district spokesman Dave Wilkins said the four additional schools were more like "one faucet here, one faucet there."

At DeLong, seven of 116 tested water sources had high levels of lead. At Reed, 39 of 59 locations tested showed lead levels above 20 parts per billion, the highest amount considered acceptable by the district. The levels at Reed ranged from 5 parts per billion (ppb) to 2,330 ppb.

The Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to lead may cause health problems such as stomach distress or even brain damage.

Specific lead levels have not been released for the four schools announced Tuesday.

It's still unknown why no action was taken following the water quality tests last May, but an administrative professional has been placed on leave in connection to the issue, Wilkins said. The official "was responsible for communicating the test results and doing something about them."

The district blocked off drinking fountains and ordered bottled water at the schools. An audit of all past water quality tests at every school is underway.

Angel Morton, president of the Tacoma Education Association, said the union's members are concerned about the health of students at the elementary schools because they're most at risk from the effects of lead exposure, but the union is looking into the effects of exposure for long-term employees as well.

"I would venture to say that most people are not drinking school water until this is all over with," she said in a phone interview Tuesday.

No Tacoma schools have "gooseneck" piping in their water systems, the culprit for lead-contaminated drinking water found in several Tacoma homes recently, Wilkins said.

Morton, who previously taught kindergarten at Grant elementary, said Tacoma high schools have been largely renovated more recently than elementary schools and the six schools found to have lead issues are in "more working class neighborhoods."

Tests are done on a rotating schedule, and "up to this point they weren't testing every school in the district every year," Wilkins said, but couldn't say exactly how frequently each school is tested.

A state law approved in 2009 requires testing of school drinking water for lead and other environmental hazards such as mold if funding is available for it, but money for the testing has never been approved, according to Dave Johnson, a spokesman for the state Department of Health. Some schools that have their own water supply must test for lead, according to the EPA, but otherwise no statewide or federal rule requires schools to test drinking water for lead, Johnson said.

"The larger issue here is that many of our public health services are underfunded," Johnson said Tuesday. "Safe drinking water is a foundational public health service that must be present in every community."

Seattle Public Schools sent out a statement on Tuesday saying the district school board in 2004 adopted a drinking water policy that includes "periodic testing of each drinking water source in each school," and that the district "considers student health and safety as a top priority."


AP reporter Donna Blankinship contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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