More than half of the Atlanta Public Schools buildings tested this spring showed elevated levels of lead in drinking water, some as high as 15 times the federal limit for water systems.
“What was most upsetting to me were the numbers that were really, really high,” said Amy Kirby, an assistant professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.
So far, 30 Atlanta schools and other buildings have been tested, according to initial results the Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained under Georgia’s Open Records Act. Fourteen schools and two other buildings had at least one source, such as a water fountain or kitchen tap, with lead levels above federal limits for water systems. Testing is expected to be complete by late July.
Water fountains and sinks with lead levels above the federal limit have been shut down, said Larry Hoskins, Atlanta Public Schools operations chief.
At most buildings, water from a single water fountain or sink had a high lead level. At others, elevated levels were found at multiple sources.
“We will not allow people access to those … until we are 100 percent sure that the drinking water is below the 15 parts per billion threshold,” Hoskins said. That’s the level above which water systems are generally required to take action to reduce lead in drinking water under federal law.
The schools with the highest lead levels include Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Usher-Collier Heights Elementary School, Crim High School, Inman Middle School, Grady High School and Boyd Elementary School’s temporary site at the former Archer High School.
Parents whose children attend schools with higher reported levels should consider telling them to avoid school water fountains, Kirby said.
“I would consider sending them with bottled water rather than have them drink from water fountains,” she said.
The testing was prompted by the national focus on lead in drinking water after dangerous lead levels were found in the water supply of Flint, Mich., Hoskins said. Dozens of school districts nationally have started testing, and lead has been found in cities including Chicago, Newark, Portland, and Washington, D.C.
No federal or Georgia law requires water in schools or daycare centers to be tested for lead. Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Clayton county school districts all said they have not systematically tested school drinking water, though some said they do water quality testing on a “case-by-case” basis.
Hoskins said, “We want to do everything we possibly can to be proactive in understanding potential threats to our students.”
But even children at schools that weren’t flagged for high levels of lead could be at risk.
There is no “safe” level of lead exposure for children. Even low levels of lead in blood can result in behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, slowed growth and other problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Atlanta’s testing is limited to identifying schools with levels above 15 parts per billion.
At Sarah Smith Elementary School’s Primary Campus, for example, lead was found in water from five water fountains and classroom sinks. Because the levels were below the federal limit, the district “passed” the school. There’s no record the school district took any action to fix those fountains and sinks.
District staff are trying to figure out how lead is getting into school drinking water, Hoskins said.
Lead can enter drinking water from corroded pipes and from brass or chrome-plated brass faucets or fixtures with lead solder. In general, buildings constructed before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder.
But a newer building is no guarantee that drinking water is lead-free.
Most of the Atlanta school buildings with elevated lead levels were built or renovated after 1986.
Records obtained by the AJC under the Open Records Act show the school district is trying to fix problems at some schools with high lead levels: Workers flushed water lines and replaced faucets and other fixtures.
That’s encouraging, Kirby said. But it’s important that the district has a plan for ongoing testing and maintenance.
“Where there is a high level and then they flushed, what’s the plan for preventing that from happening again?” she asked. Without a plan, “that’s going to come right back.”
Atlanta Public Schools plans to develop a plan for ongoing maintenance later this summer, after full test results are received, Hoksins said. That plan will include an ongoing lead-testing program, he said.
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