by Theodora Scarato
After the story of the Flint Michigan water crisis unfolded in the media last year, I read a news story reporting that lead had been found in the water at Ardmore Elementary School and that water fountains and sinks had been turned off. I became curious. Was the drinking water in our county schools safe?
So in January of 2016 I decided to write to PGCPS CEO Dr. Maxwell and began a long inquiry asking what tests had been done in Prince George’s County Schools to measure for lead. Here is what I learned:
The school system performed water tests from 2009 to 2012 and found that at least 88 schools exceeded EPA allowable lead levels. (Read the list of “Prince George’s County Public Schools Fixtures that are Valved Off” which was sent to me from PGCPS). The majority of schools with lead contamination are elementary schools.
As of December 2016, the school system had not done anything to remediate this other than simply to turn off faucets in the majority of these schools.
At first, PGCPS told me that they were fixing the lead problem. I was sent a document titled “PGCPS Lead in Water Program” that explained a four-phase plan to fix the lead problem. This document said that a Request for Proposals (RFP) had been submitted “to remediate the remaining classroom water fountains and sinks throughout the system.” This was “Phase Four” of the plan.
You can imagine my surprise to learn that in fact the information PGCPS had sent me was not accurate. When I asked PGCPS to share the details of the “Phase Four” plan, they responded on October 7, 2016 with an email saying that they had made a mistake.
According to this October email, the “RFP issued in 2012 was published but not awarded to an acceptable vendor. Staff prepared to re-issue the RFP again in 2014, but the funding had to be re-allocated for remediation efforts at Ardmore Elementary School and other priority projects in the Building Services Department.”
If I correctly understand the information I have been given, little has been done to remediate elevated levels of lead found in testing done over the last decade. Despite remediation work at Ardmore Elementary — which did result in reducing but not eliminating lead levels — the water fountains are off. To my knowledge, nothing has been done in other schools other than simply turning off faucets and drinking fountains.
After a year-long email exchange with PGCPS, I recieved water tests reports for the years 2009 through 2016. I repeatedly wrote to PGCPS asking about how they were fixing the problem and ensuring safe drinking water for all students. I have since received a letter providing each school’s name and listing each fountain and faucet which was turned off. Read it here.
According to this December 2016 letter from PGCPS, parents were not notified about elevated levels of lead during any of the years from 2004 to 2016 by the Environmental Office, and it was unknown whether notification was received from the Communications Office. Only at Ardmore, where parents advocated for safe water, was any remediation done, as far as I am aware.
Despite this, the Lead in Water Document sent to me by PGCPS in September states that, “Prince George’s County Public Schools continues to aggressively address lead in drinking water. PGCPS is confident that all schools have water sources that are free of lead.” I do not believe such statements to be accurate.
To complicate matters, I found contradictory information in a October 2016 WUSA news article, “Lead contamination forces water shut off at a Prince George’s Co. elementary school.” According to the report, “School officials were made aware of the lead contamination Monday, October 3 and fountains were shut off the next day,” at Glenridge Elementary School in Landover Hills. However, on October 7, 2016, PGCPS stated in an email that, “All testing results to date have been provided. There was no testing during 2016.” The news report states that all 45 water taps were turned off because, “lead was discovered a week ago.” Something does not add up. Could it be that the faucets were turned off after testing from years ago was revealed and parents started voicing concerns? Have children been drinking lead contaminated water since 2010? What about other schools? Why isn’t the school district making this their number one concern? (For reference, Glenridge Lead Tests from 2010 are at page 268 here.)
When I realized that parents were not informed about the lead contamination in their schools, I started sending out emails to a handful of parents in the school system.
In the fall of 2016, as parents learned about elevated lead levels through my forwarded emails, they started asking questions and calling for accountability. A determined group of parents in various schools met with PGCPS staff in January 2017. In response to their advocacy, they were told that PGCPS has allocated $200,000 to address the issue of elevated lead levels in the water. I am concerned that $200,000 is not nearly enough to adequately address this issue.
As a comparison, after water tests done in the St. Louis schools were presented to the public in 2016, the board of education unanimously approved up to $1 million to eliminate the contamination. “We’re taking aggressive action,” St Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams said, “We are working really hard to make sure that water that students drink is safe water.”
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), no amount of lead is safe for children. The EPA Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee states, “The studies on IQ indicate . . . that lead affects children’s IQs at exposure levels appreciably lower than recognized in the previous review and raises concerns with multiple chemical exposures that warrant an extra margin of safety.”
The school district may be allowing lead levels in tap water that are not safe.
PGCPS states that water was turned off if the lead levels were above the EPA Action level, but it is still unclear which standard was used 5 years ago. PGCPS first wrote me in September that they are using the lead limit of 20 parts per billion (ppb) as the lead level at which they cut off the water. (Read the letter here). Then, in a December email I was told that they are using a 15 parts per billion threshold. (Read the December letter here). It is unclear which of these reflects reality.
Even if the school district is using 15 ppb, this allows too much lead in the water. Many experts are calling for water lead levels to be much lower. Some PGCPS water taps were measured at 5 to 15 ppb, and these faucets were not turned off. Furthermore, these tests were done 5 years ago and the numbers could be different depending on whether the system was flushed and other factors. Water at a lead level of 13 ppb could easily test higher with another draw from the same fixture, as the Ardmore testing showed. That is why the water should be regularly measured. Shouldn’t the water be lead free?
Parents need to be fully informed about this issue. The school system needs to assess, fund, and fix this problem, bringing in experts when necessary. Children can also be exposed to lead from a variety of sources such as chipping paint, dirt and even jewelry that they put in their mouth. The school system could do an educational awareness campaign for the community.
What Every Parent Can Do:
- Ask the school for the full lead test results for your school.
- If the lead levels are high, and if it has been a few years since the last water test was done in your child’s school, ask for all faucets to be tested.
- Ensure fresh water is available for all the students and your child.
- Talk to your pediatrician to see if you need to get a lead test for your child.
- Write the PTA, the principal, the school district, the county and all your elected officials asking them for a plan to remediate the lead in the water at your child’s school and in all our county schools.
- Write your congresspersons and elected officials and call their office. Find out who your elected officials are here.
- Children need access to water throughout the school day. The school has a responsibility to ensure a safe school and safe water. Children get thirsty and need water throughout the day.
What Prince George’s County Public Schools Can Do:
- Initiate a coordinated, transparent effort to remediate this situation.
- Consult with the EPA, medical experts and lead remediation experts on next steps.
- Assess if you need to hire more staff to fully attend to these environmental issues.
- Fully inform the parents of each school as the results of the water tests that have been done in each school. Make the tests results available to them and explain the plan in place for the water sources in the building. Have a Q and A for parents.
- If water sources have remained on for the last 5 years and testing showed lead levels at that time.. it is possible that children have been exposed to lead and the parents need to be informed so that they take this information to their pediatrician.
- Inform the parents every step of the way so that they are aware and involved in the process.
- Prioritize school building maintenance issues so that children can learn in a healthy environment.
- Support state and federal efforts that raise awareness on lead education/prevention programs, programs to support remediation efforts in schools.
- Call for safer standards in drinking water and laws that ensure water is routinely tested in schools.
If the school district states that they “do not have the funds” to promptly address this, it does not mean that they should not act. This means that they must advocate for support to fix the problem. They need to reallocate funds and contact the EPA about where they can get support to fix the problem. This is a health issue and it needs to be fixed.
For years I have advocated in the county to address environmental health issues, from wireless radiation health issues to cell towers on school grounds, and to the millions of dollars used for toxic rubber playground surfaces and artificial turf fields. These environmental health issues in our schools need to be a priority to protect our children’s healthy future.
I assumed that, once the school system realized that there was a problem, they would develop a plan to fix it. I am still shocked that nothing was done for so long. Why weren’t all PTAs and all principals informed of the lead levels in their schools and given instructions on how to fully inform the parents?
In the end, it was the parents — most of whom I have never met — who took this information about the lead in their children’s classrooms, refused to take no for an answer, and called for accountability in their schools. Yet in most schools, parents and teachers and staff in Prince George’s County Schools are unaware. This has to change.
I hope that now we will see a comprehensive plan in place, with funding to remediate the lead in the water and ensure healthy drinking water for our students, teachers and staff.
|Wisconsin Courier: Lead pipes expose Wisconsin students to risks Gaps in federal standards enforced by state leave some sites untested|
Lead Test Results from Prince George’s County Schools
A Note about Ardmore Elementary
It was a 2014 news story online about water shut off at Ardmore Elementary that first prompted me to ask PGCPS about the water. In the news report a father states:
“How you can operate as a school system and know these are issues — with the children not being able to have clean drinking water, not being able to wash their hands, and the fact they have to cut off so many fountains in this school and these drinking fixtures. And these are just classrooms, bathrooms and this has not been repaired over this time. It’s not like this [happened] overnight.”
According to the information from PGCPS, the school system had water testing done at Ardmore Elementary in November 2014 and the levels were quite high with the teachers’ room faucet at 2600 ppb. This is 173 Times what the EPA says should trigger action (15 ppb is the EPA action level). I was told that in response, the main water line was replaced at the school and that “the sink faucets and water fountain fixtures were replaced throughout the school building” in August 2015. Lead levels were again tested on August 18, 2015 and again on August 27, 2015. Yet after the second August test, the levels of several faucets still remained high. The water was tested again a few days later on August 31, and the results show that several of the faucets still tested high including the cafeteria water faucet (See page 52 here). Although a December 2015 test of selected taps showed levels below the EPA action level, the numbers were still almost at 8 ppb. PGCPS wrote me that, “A preliminary test, undertaken after these actions and following a building wide flushing of the pipes, indicated that the water is safe to drink. However, in an abundance of caution, we are continuing to use filters and supply bottled water. “
According to documents sent to me by PGCPS, Ardmore Elementary School faucets are still off.