While two Tacoma elementary schools were found to have high levels of lead in the water, Seattle officials continue to say the city’s drinking water is safe.
Two public elementary schools in Tacoma found high levels of lead in their drinking water last May — up to 116 times the accepted levels at one facility — but the Tacoma Public School District only announced the results and informed parents Monday.
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 planned.
Dan Voelpel, a district spokesman, said the district is investigating why there was no action after the tests were first taken.
“We know they were overlooked for some reason,” he said.
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In Seattle, meanwhile, city officials have announced after testing at five homes that the city’s drinking water is safe. But it intends to dig down to see if those houses were connected to the water main by gooseneck fittings, which can be a source of lead, Wylie Harper, SPU’s drinking-water quality director, said Monday.
Whether goosenecks are found, and how many are found, will “inform our steps going forward,” Harper said. “It’s an evolving process.”
As a result of the discovery at the two Tacoma schools, the district’s safety and security manager who oversees environmental health for the school district was placed on paid administrative leave, Voelpel told The News Tribune.
District officials on Friday night reviewed the past tests that found “higher than accepted” levels of lead at Mann and Reed elementary schools, according to Dave Wilkins, another district spokesman.
In a statement Monday, the district said 59 drinking sources tested at Reed Elementary school had lead levels ranging from 5 parts per billion (ppb) to 2,330 ppb, and 39 had lead levels above 20 ppb, the district’s safety standard.
At Mann Elementary, 69 water sources were found to have lead levels up to 784 ppb, while 23 locations were above 20 ppb.
“These are internal locations that someone could potentially drink from,” Voelpel said.
The announcement came as Tacoma Water officials reported drinking water with high levels of lead in several homes last week that they attributed to old gooseneck connector pipes leading into as many as 1,700 houses.
Voelpel said the elementary schools don’t have gooseneck piping and that the district has not figured out why lead levels are so high.
“It bothers me that they knew about it for a year and didn’t do anything,” said Leslie Cooley, treasurer of the Parent Teacher Association at Reed.
Seattle utilities officials tested five homes for lead after learning of the high levels in Tacoma. Those five tests confirmed Seattle drinking water is safe, city officials concluded.
Two potential sources of contamination in Seattle’s drinking water are galvanized service pipes that can be lined with lead, or gooseneck fittings that connect homes to water mains. Over time, the pipe lining could corrode, releasing lead.
SPU treats its drinking water with lime to modify the pH and keep lead from leaching into water.
Both the galvanized pipes and goosenecks are found in homes built before 1930. SPU estimates 8,000 homes are served by galvanized pipes and roughly one-quarter of those have goosenecks.
There’s a 24 percent chance none of the tested homes has goosenecks, said Daniela Witten, associate professor of statistics and biostatistics at the University of Washington. “There’s a pretty good chance that the five tests tell us nothing about lead levels in houses with goosenecks.”
SPU officials agreed that a five-house test is not statistically significant. “They weren’t intended to be,” said SPU spokesman Andy Ryan. “They are a representative sample.”
The five houses were selected from four quadrants of the city, with a fifth from a central location. What’s more, all five were old enough to have galvanized service lines.
“Everything we have so far shows corrosion control is effective,” Harper said. And such control is the cornerstone of safe drinking water, he said, not the plumbing materials.
SPU director Ray Hoffman said, “If we find a house had a gooseneck, we will remove it, take it to the lab, and look at whether corrosion control has been effective in lead goosenecks.”
As Ryan explains it, upon learning of Tacoma’s problems Wednesday, Seattle said its tap water is safe but to run the water for two minutes if it had not been turned on in six hours. Lead can leach into standing water and it’s best, as a precaution, to move it through the pipes before consuming any.
SPU took that course out of “an abundance of caution,” Ryan said. Getting the five houses tested, along with SPU’s corrosion control and compliance with state and federal regulations, “pushes us back over the line” of confidence in the system, Ryan said.