Here's a quick update on what has — or hasn't — happened to address lead in school drinking water since our reporting in February.
Last month, The Seattle Times reported on the persistence of lead in the water at some Seattle schools — despite the district’s long-standing policy to test and fix every drinking-water source with high lead readings.
Since then, additional testing by the Washington Department of Health confirmed that reporting, but also showed the scope of the problem statewide. Meanwhile, legislation that would have limited students’ exposure to the toxin in school pretty much died in committee last month.
Here’s a quick update on what has — or hasn’t — happened to address lead in school drinking water:
Seattle Public Schools dismisses concerns
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In its early February report, the Times used test results from the district’s own drinking-water-quality program to show that water sources at more than half the city’s South End schools exceeded the district’s self-imposed limit for lead. Elevated levels of lead also appeared in water samples collected at 36 percent of North Seattle schools.
The story concerned parents and educators, including some who wrote to The Times asking whether preschool and day-care centers tested for lead in their drinking water. (The Seattle district, and others in the region, voluntarily pay for water-quality tests and subsequent remediation.) One mother said the district’s test results page lacks any accessibility and that the average parent would find it incomprehensible, while another wrote to the superintendent asking why students aren’t instructed to avoid drinking from sinks and faucets in their classrooms.
In response to The Times’ reporting, the district posted frequently asked questions to its website in early February.
The post states, with emphasis, that no drinking-water fixture in Seattle schools tests above the district’s limit for lead. However, the district acknowledged what it considers some sources of water not intended for drinking do fail its standard. The district did not detail how it distinguishes drinking-water sources from non-drinking-water sources in its program.
“We are continuously improving these testing procedures, with funding from our local levy dollars, to ensure that our students and staff consume healthy, non-contaminated water while in our buildings,” the district wrote.
New state test results show extent of the problem
Despite the district’s claim, new data from the state health department showed at least one water source at Hawthorne Elementary in southeast Seattle failed the federal government’s less-strict limit for lead.
Starting last year, the Washington Department of Health contacted elementary and often older schools throughout the state to gauge their interest in a voluntary — and free — program to test their drinking water for lead. Nearly 200 schools participated, including four campuses in Seattle.
The results of those tests — analyzed for the first time by Environment Washington, a statewide advocacy group — show that 97 percent of participating schools had at least one water source with levels of lead above one part per billion, the threshold recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In Seattle, the district tests for lead at or above 10 parts per billion, while the federal government recommends a standard of 15 parts per billion.
Bill to require testing misses deadline in Legislature
A legislative proposal that state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, filed last month would have required all schools in Washington to test their drinking water and take immediate action if they discovered lead readings above a threshold of five parts per billion. Using that standard, 26 of the 92 water fixtures that the state tested in Seattle would have triggered automatic remediation under Pollet’s bill.
But that legislation likely won’t gain any traction in Olympia this year, as it failed to clear a key deadline on Feb. 22.
Rep. Sharon Santos, D-Seattle, chairs the House education committee, which would have needed to vote on Pollet’s bill before that deadline. She suggested the proposal could come back during next year’s legislative session.