Kids at Risk: Minnesota Schools Failing to Follow Guidelines on Testing for Lead in Water
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School officials across Minnesota are knowingly putting thousands of children at serious risk by not following guidelines on testing for lead in water and not fixing water systems that they know are defective, a 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation has found.
Our news staff poured over the water testing records of more than 600 Minnesota schools and found at least one out of every four of those schools are not following the state’s recommendations that a school be tested at least once every five years. We found some schools that have not been tested for lead since the late 1990s.
When looking at the reports in the map embedded below, keep in mind the Minnesota Department of Health’s guideline for schools: If lead is at or below 20 parts per billion (ppb), the tap may be used for drinking water or food preparation. If lead exceeds 20 ppb, twice daily flushing should be done.
School districts are not on the hook for exposing children to increased health risks by having high amounts of lead in water, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS found: The Minnesota Department of Health recommends that schools test each tap or fixture providing drinking water or water for food preparation for lead every five years.
The EPA has guidelines for 10,000 U.S. schools on private well water.
And, it appears the department is lax when it comes to its oversight of monitoring schools that have gone long periods of not testing water. For example, records show Minneapolis Public Schools has not tested at least 31 of its schools since 1998. A district alternative school for pregnant and parenting students – Longfellow School – was last tested for lead amounts in 1998, according to district records.
"It’s a little surprising to me to hear that there are systems that have not been tested for very long periods of time," Assistant Commissioner of Health Paul Allwood said. "I should point out that our guidelines are voluntary,” Allwood added. “That’s what we’re discussing – should there be additional authority.”
Minnesota communities that receive municipal water already test for lead in the system but health officials suggest schools test due to possible lead solder, brass fixtures, water usage and age of materials that could be in the water system students could drink from.
Dr. Marc Edwards, the nation’s leading authority on lead amounts in water, said in an interview that lead amounts of more than 20 parts per billion (ppb) is a critical health concern. Edwards is a professor at the Virginia Tech University and led the outcry over the recent contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
KSTP reporter Eric Chaloux went to Edwards’ lab on campus on in Blacksburg, Virginia, to learn more.
"Parents really need to hold schools’ feet to the fire to make sure this problem is fixed,” Edwards said. It costs as little as $30 to fix the problem when it comes to water fountains and high amounts of lead coming out of them, he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently stated school water fountains should not exceed water lead concentrations of more than 1 ppb.
In our records review, news reporters and producers found that school children from Burnsville, Savage and Eagan – District 191 – were exposed to lead levels up to 942 ppb from one drinking fountain tested in 2013. That amount ranks as one of highest contaminant levels detected in the records reviewed. That fountain is at Joseph Nicollet Junior High School in Burnsville.
“One drink from that fountain, that’s a health concern,” Edwards said when he reviewed those specific results.
In an email, a spokesperson from District 191 said that, “those fountains were removed from service. At other locations, signs have been posted indicating the need for flushing prior to using the fixture.”
Minneapolis Public Schools has at least 43 facilities where at least some portion of the water system must be flushed daily due to elevated lead levels, according to records provided by the district and reviewed by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS. To reduce lead levels, the state suggests flushing water lines daily, which the district says it has followed for 18 years.
Every school day, custodians are supposed to run the fountains and drain lines for 10 minutes in the morning and sometimes later in the day.
Lee Setter, the district’s manager overseeing the Lead In Water Safety Program, was asked whether there is a tough monitoring system in place to guarantee that the suggested flushing is actually happening.
"I guess I can’t answer that – no. We’re not out in every building every morning but I think most people in our district understand the importance of it," Setter said. "We have a very comprehensive program to identify our hot spots where we need to really focus on this," Setter said.
Setter showed Chaloux a check-marked, dated log sheet that indicated custodians at Lake Harriet Upper School had flushed fountains since children have been back to school.
Last spring, the district identified 38 buildings that have elevated lead levels that should be considered specifically for pipe replacement, with preference given to elementary schools.
In 2016, Minneapolis Public Schools has tested the following schools for lead in the water: Armatage, Wenonah, Webster, Kenny, Loring, Pratt, and Lake Harriet Upper at a cost of $200 per school.
Suburban Schools Lead Issues
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS found that District 833, South Washington County Schools, which includes the cities of Woodbury and Cottage Grove, has not conducted lead water testing since at least 16 years ago, according to records.
School officials initially blamed cost for why they were not following the state guidelines that are designed to protect children. Those officials declined a request for an on-camera interview. In a statement, officials said, “Because the high cost of testing is prohibitive and because it’s not a mandate, rather a recommendation, other facility needs have been addressed over time.”
Two days after declining the interview, district officials e-mailed Chaloux, telling him that, in fact, they would be “moving forward with water testing over the course of the 2016-17 school year.” They estimated it would cost $43,000 to conduct the tests and would “immediately address” any issues they discovered.
Health Experts Weigh in on Lead Exposure
Dr. Abby Montague is a pediatrician and toxicology fellow at Minnesota Poison Control System. When she thinks of lead in water, she equates those troubling amounts with a child’s intellectual development.
"Our largest concern is on the developing brain, since lead can impair how the brain learns. You can see learning difficulties, memory problems, behavior trouble," Montague said. She said it can be hard to draw a parallel from a parts per billion level in water to the child’s blood level because it depends on the individual child’s health.
"We’re also concerned about drinking water. That’s why we recommend parents use cold water for all food prep and drinking water, because it has less contaminates that could be in the plumbing," she said.
A congressional bill – TEST for Lead Act – was introduced earlier this year requiring schools to test drinking water, including faucets used for food preparation, sinks in bathrooms, and drinking fountains. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), whose district includes Minneapolis, is a co-sponsor of the bill.
“Reports of elevated lead levels in the Twin Cities are extremely troubling, and I urge all appropriate agencies to look into this matter as soon as possible,” Elllison said in a statement.
“In the long term, we should ensure we have robust nationwide data collection and reporting requirements, as well as help schools protect students by passing the TEST for Lead Act, which would help fund the testing of lead levels in schools and require that they are tested at least once a year.”
Eric Chaloux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-642-4488.
Erik Altmann can be reached at email@example.com or 651-642-4284.
Scott Theisen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-642-4420.