This story has been updated to reflect that the Environmental Protection Agency recommends individual water outlets, such as fountains, be taken out of service if the lead level exceeds 20 parts per billion (.02 micrograms per liter), not the EPA action level for lead of 15 ppb (.015 mcg/L). The results were converted to parts per billion instead of micrograms per liter for easier reading. The update also includes more analysis of the test results.
Prairie City School District is encouraging students to bring refillable water bottles after high lead levels were found in several drinking fountains.
All local school districts tested for lead this summer after high levels were found in Flint, Michigan, city water and water at some Portland schools. Schools that used public water systems have not been required to test for lead in the past, but a recent rule will soon require them to do so.
Prairie City had several water sources exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency limit. The EPA action level for lead is 15 parts per billion, or .015 micrograms per liter, but that level applies to testing entire public water systems, not individual outlets as schools test. The EPA recommends individual outlets, such as fountains, be taken out of service if the lead level exceeds 20 ppb (or .02 mcg/L).
After a June 22 test showed high lead levels — seven outlets with 14 ppb or more, with one more than four times the legal limit — Prairie City Superintendent Julie Gurczynski shut off the water to those fountains, followed recommendations to flush the system and ordered another test of those seven fountains, which also showed high levels.
In the first test, the old gym boys locker room tested at 94.5 ppb; in the second test, it dropped to 6.36 ppb. Similarly, the new gym boys locker room tested at 52.6 ppb originally and at 9.53 ppb in the second test. The new gym lobby north drinking fountain, which tested at 14.1 ppb in June, also decreased in the August test to 12.9 ppb.
The four other outlets that were retested, however, actually increased on the second test after the system was flushed — most from levels that were below the EPA’s removal recommendation to levels that exceeded the limit.
The old gym girls locker room increased from 17.1 ppb in June to 28.5 ppb in August. The elementary Room 2 drinking fountain and sink increased from 17.1 ppb to 26.6 ppb. The elementary hallway drinking fountain increased from 17.1 ppb to 24.4 ppb. The elementary library drinking fountain and sink increased from 14.3 ppb to 17.8 ppb but was still below the 20-ppb limit.
“When I received the results from the June 22 test, I immediately shut the water off to the locations where we tested over the legal limit to minimize the exposure to students,” Gurczynski said.
She said she has removed some of the fountains and replaced them with one in the hallway by the elementary restrooms that is filtered and can fill bottles. A similar fountain near the high school main entrance and office had a June test result of “not detected at the minimum reporting level,” indicating the lead level was below .103 ppb, the only such result at Prairie City School.
Of the other Grant County schools tested, no results were above the 20-ppb limit.
Only Monument School District had a level above 15 ppb. A sample listed as “Drinking Fountain-Lower” tested at 18.8 ppb, but a handwritten note on the results states it is a custodial sink with no drinking fountain. The next highest result was 11.7 ppb in the weight room.
In Long Creek’s two tests, the kitchen sink tested highest at 1.98 ppb. The highest level in Dayville was 3.74 ppb. For Grant Union, the highest level detected at the junior-senior high school was 2.42 ppb; Seneca, 1.26 ppb; and Humbolt Elementary, 11 ppb.
Gurczynski said she has not received any complaints about high lead levels in students.
The EPA reports high levels of lead can cause brain, red blood cell and kidney damage in children, and there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood. The EPA goal level for lead is zero.
Gurczynski said the district also tested for copper on the second test, but all were below the EPA action level of 1,300 ppb (1.3 mcg/L), which is also the goal level, indicating there is no known or expected risk to health at that level.
Gurczynski said student safety is a top priority but also noted the testing was expensive, $60 per fountain, which quickly adds up even for a small school.
All state school districts will soon have to develop a plan to regularly test for lead as well as radon, after the Oregon Board of Education recently adopted a new rule.
The board in June agreed to fast-track adoption of the rule at the request of Gov. Kate Brown, after widespread media coverage of a scandal in Portland Public Schools over lead in drinking water that went unreported.
The rule requires school districts to submit a preliminary plan for testing for both lead and radon by Oct. 1, with a final plan due by Jan. 1. While the rule gives no specific deadline for testing for lead, it does require districts to report results to the public within five business days and to send out an annual report.
“What we like about this plan is that part of what we saw in Portland was the community didn’t have access to information, and in fact, when you have large institutions information can get lost over the years,” said Emily Nazarov, operations policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Education, who headed up the rulemaking. “By creating a plan you have one place that community members and parents can look to find out how does the school district address radon, how does the school district plan to address water.”
The Board of Education pushed ahead with the rule despite protests from school advocates who said the timeline was too tight and expressed worry about where to find money to address the cost of testing and mitigation.
“You are setting up a framework by which we have assurances at the state level that our schools are taking action in a comprehensive way toward health and safety,” said Oregon Chief Education Officer Lindsey Capps. “It’s an imperative that every student should be entitled to.”
The requirement will entail hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs to schools in the form of testing, supplying bottled water, mitigation and testing individuals who might have been exposed to high levels of lead, according to the Oregon School Boards Association.
Capital Bureau reporter Paris Achen contributed to this report.