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Retests of water clear three schools of lead worries

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Water at Larchmont, Manitou Park and Reed elementary schools has been cleared for use following a second set of tests that showed water samples at every faucet at the schools is drinkable.

Initial tests last week suggested that these three, and 10 other schools, had higher than safe levels of lead. Water sampling at the remaining schools that were initially tested is now underway at Birney, Browns Point, Downing, Point Defiance, DeLong, Madison, Mann, Stanley, Whitman and Whittier, as well as a districtwide.

State Department of Health officials call for lead samples to follow a two-step process. The first test calls for water to remain stagnant in pipes for more than eight hours before samples are taken. Doing this provides the highest concentration of lead in the water system so any sampling could be detected and fixed. The second test calls for samples to be collected after the water was allowed to flow for at least 30 seconds, which better simulates actual water use at faucets or water fountains.

Testing of the water systems using the second method showed the elementary schools had lead levels below the school district’s acceptable limit of 15 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends a threshold of 20 parts per billion.

“We are still working on issues at the other schools,” district Communications Director Dan Voelpel said.

The second tests at Mann, Whittier, Downing and DeLong showed at least one faucet or water fountain had high lead levels. Those fixtures have been blocked off for replacement or are already replaced and awaiting the results of retests. Bottled water will be provided until the schools have been cleared.

Officials are still waiting follow-up test results at Browns Point, Point Defiance, Birney, Madison, Stanley and Whitman. Those schools tested beyond acceptable limits last year. Tests at all schools are now being scheduled under a five-tier plan with elementary schools taking priority since lead affects younger children more than older students and adults. Once early learning and elementary schools have been tested, the district will have the water systems at junior high and then high schools followed by administrative and support facilities tested. Tests at all 57 district buildings will be completed during the next month. Water tests cost about $1,500 per school, which will be paid from the district’s operations budget. Schools will now be tested at least every three years based on a rotating schedule.

“It is important to us to take care of this in our community,” Superintendent Carla Santorno said.

Tacoma school officials began testing the water in their schools after Tacoma Water conducted water tests of its system this spring and found some 1,700 homes and businesses could potentially have lead levels about the state limit. The utility found that water connections called “goosenecks” from the water main to the customer were largely at fault. These gooseneck connections were installed in the early to mid 1900s before health officials understood the effects of lead poisoning. Tacoma Water began testing for lead in its water system in response to the increased concern about water safety prompted by the massive lead contamination scandal unfolding in Flint, Mich.

Estimates by water officials state that as many as 1,700 water customers have lead gooseneck connections that could cause lead contamination. Established neighborhoods are now being tested and pipes are being dug up to replace the goosenecks that are found. Regular tests throughout Tacoma Water’s system over many years have shown very low levels of lead, so the level of contamination is only now being determined. Connections to four homes have so far been found to have high lead levels and have been repaired.
“Providing safe water is very important to us. Tacoma Water is working on a plan to pay for water testing at the homes and businesses where lead goosenecks are suspected,” said Tacoma Public Utility Board Chair Bryan Flint in a release. “The plan and schedule for testing may take some time, so we appreciate customer patience as we work through the details. Between now and then, those who may have lead goosenecks should continue to flush their water.” 

Metro Parks Tacoma officials are also testing the drinking water and faucets at its parks and buildings to safeguard against tainted water.

"We take the health and safety of our customers and staff very seriously, and we are taking steps to ensure our water continues to be safe to drink," said Erik Hanberg, president of the Metro Parks Board of Commissioners in a statement. "We commend Tacoma Public Utilities for its due diligence in discovering problems around the community last week.”

Parks officials are collecting samples from every water fountain in the district. They are also testing sinks in buildings and parks where water is intended for consumption. Sites include all of the community centers, sports field complexes, neighborhood parks, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Point Defiance Park.

“As a precaution, it makes sense to ensure that the drinking water at district properties remains safe for all users,” Hanberg said. “We are talking with partners who use our sites, such as Tacoma Public Schools and the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound, who also want to protect public health. If any of the individual tests come back showing levels above public health limits, then we will work with the appropriate authorities and take immediate action."

Resources

  • If you are concerned about your water, let it run for two minutes before drinking or cooking, particularly if the water has not been used for more than six hours. Bathing or showering will effectively flush the service line.
  • Tacoma Public Utilities provides information about water sampling at: mytpu.org/tacomawater/water-quality/new-information-on
  • Updates on water testing at Tacoma Public Schools can be found at: tacoma.k12.wa.us.
  • The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department recommends checking with your doctor if you are concerned about health effects from lead and provides more information on its website at tpchd.org/environment/healthy-environment/lead/.
  • Residents can have their water tested. Two certified labs that accept water samples from members of the public are Spectra Analytical Inc., (253) 272-4850 and Water Management Laboratories, (253) 531-3121.
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