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Elevated lead levels found at half of Atlanta schools tested

John Spink / AJC
John Spink / AJC

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Is your school’s drinking water safe?

More than half of Atlanta Public Schools buildings tested to date have high levels of lead in their drinking water. That means that at one or more sources tested in the school, lead levels exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency limit for water systems of 15 parts per billion. The EPA recommends that schools take water fountains and other water sources out of service if lead levels exceeds 20 parts per billion.

Records Atlanta Public Schools provided in response to a Georgia Open Records Act request only show schools where lead levels in one or more water sources were above 15 parts per billion. They do not show sites systemwide where lead was present at lower levels.

There is no accepted "safe" level for lead exposure in children. Even low levels of lead in children's blood can result in behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, slowed growth and other problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The buildings with lead levels above 15 parts per billion are:

Archer High School (temporary site for Boyd Elementary School)

Blalock Elementary School (closed)

Cascade Elementary School

Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy (lower levels found after maintenance work)

Crim High School

Grady High School

Hope-Hill Elementary School (lower levels found after maintenance work)

Inman Middle School

Peterson building (currently used for an adult literacy program)

Sarah Smith Elementary School’s Intermediate Campus (lower levels found after maintenance work)

Sutton Middle School

Sutton Middle School’s Sixth Grade Academy

Therrell High School (lower levels found after maintenance work)

Usher-Collier Heights Elementary School

Brewer Building

Facilities Building

Source: Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta Public Schools

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.