Officials wary of lead problem in schools’ water

AMHERST – The Amherst School District is continuing to test for lead in school water after contamination was found in taps and faucets last summer.

In August, water from some of the faucets in Wilkins School and Amherst Middle School were found to have levels of lead higher than federal "action levels." One water fountain at Wilkins testing at 100 times the 15 parts per billion that is the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s concentration that determines when remedial action should be taken.

Larry Ballard, head of the teachers union, said school administrators hadn’t been as transparent as they might have been, but that the situation has much improved and he is satisfied school officials are doing everything they should be doing.

"I know that among the teachers and staff, there is a level of uneasiness as information has not been as forthcoming or as transparent as many would have liked," he said in an email.

According to a timeline provided by Superintendent Peter Warburton, the water fountain outside the third- and fourth-grade bathrooms at Wilkins and the fountains outside the middle school art rooms were turned off in August in response to the test results.

During a second round of testing of the remaining fountains in all of the schools in November, no elevated lead levels were found. In December, further testing of all water fountains and faucets found no elevated levels at Clark and Wilkins, but there were elevated levels at one faucet in the home economics room at the middle school.

It was decided to test "any faucet you could put a bottle under," said John Robichaud, the School District’s facilities manager, referring to the December test.

"I really felt we were being extremely transparent."

"To err on the side of caution," he said, all water sources in the home economics wing were immediately turned off and taken out of service. On the recommendation of Secondwind Water Systems and a plumber, Warburton said he and the School Board decided to replace all copper plumbing and faucets in the room, at a cost of $30,000.

"We weren’t fooling around with this," Warburton said during a meeting with Robichaud last week.

In January, four faucets, all in the science labs at Souhegan High School, were removed from service after they came back with elevated lead levels.

The January testing found no elevated lead levels in that wing of the middle school. But three other middle school faucets that missed the December testing had elevated levels that were replaced and retested; they still showed elevated levels and then were removed from service. At Souhegan High School, four faucets came back with high levels and were removed from service.

Warburton said news about water problems, including the problems of industrial pollution in parts of Amherst and Merrimack, led officials to talk last spring about testing the schools’ water for lead. But they decided to wait until summer to get worst-case readings of pipes that had been unused over the summer break, since minerals tend to accumulate in pipes when taps are unused.

Ballard said the union became concerned after an air quality incident during the renovation of the middle school gym floor last spring. For union members, water quality problems in Flint, Mich., and locally were fresh on people’s minds.

Ballard said school officials were slow in responding to the union’s concerns.

The Amherst Education Association "had to push for initial testing, push for obtaining the results, push for expanded testing and kept pushing," Ballard said, "because their initial expanded testing did not include a key area at AMS that was eventually replumbed as a major project."

Ballard also said the picture has improved, and that the state Department of Environmental Services believes the district is doing a good job.

"Though slow to get started, once the district realized there was a problem, corrective action has been a priority," Ballard said.

In a Jan. 6 letter to parents and staff, Warburton said the water was tested "in light of recent findings related to water quality issues in Amherst and surrounding communities."

No elevated lead levels were ever found at Clark School or at the SAU offices.

The state Department of Environmental Services oversees community public water systems, but doesn’t oversee water quality inside buildings. Last spring, though, after the water crisis in Flint came to light, the agency wrote a letter to school districts with information and recommendations about lead.

Around the same time, the Amherst teachers union requested air and water quality testing, Ballard said.

Warburton said the district conducted a random sampling of water fixtures at Clark and Wilkins schools and the middle school in August. These tests revealed the presence of lead at levels that exceeded EPA action levels at Wilkins and the middle school.

After these initial tests were conducted, "The district did not notify staff or parents of the water test results," Ballard said. "Although the AEA made multiple requests for the water quality test results, we did not receive the August testing results until we contacted the N.H. Department of Education for assistance."

The toxin can cause health and behavior problems in children.

One teacher, he said, was concerned enough to have bloodwork done on her children, both of whom attend Amherst elementary schools, to check for lead. Both tests came back fine.

After the teachers union finally received the results in November, Ballard said, it made a formal request to the superintendent and School Board chairwoman that testing be expanded to all drinking fountains and all fixtures where students might be cooking or filling their water bottles.

In the future, the district will sample twice a year, Warburton said. It will go beyond the federal and state action level of 15 parts per billion and strive for an action level of 1 ppb.

Cynthia Klevens, of the DES Drinking and Ground Water Bureau, said Amherst schools followed through voluntarily.

"They tested, took action and tested again," she said.

Although the DES and the federal Environmental Protection Agency say there is no safe level of lead, she said, Amherst school officials might be aiming at a level that’s too high.

Trying to get to a "nondetect" level of 1 ppb, she said, is "almost technically impossible to achieve. There will be some residual lead."

Last week, an industrial hygienist was scheduled to meet with Warburton and Robichaud. Warburton said all reports will be made public.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@nashuatelegraph.com.