Some school drinking fixtures still show high lead levels after replacement
Dozens of drinking water fixtures are still showing high levels of lead across Portland Public Schools despite mitigation efforts.
For example, a drinking fountain in the wrestling gym at Wilson High School showed stunningly high rates of lead. One test rang in at 456 parts per billion and another showed 295 parts per billion of lead.
The safe level of lead is a matter of debate. The Environmental Protection Agency has set an "action limit" of 20 parts per billion for lead in school water. The American Academy of Pediatrics says governments should aim for 1 part per billion of lead in school drinking water fountains.
John Burnham, the district's temporary senior director of health and safety, said PPS has chosen 15 parts per billion as a reasonable standard. That's the same level that Oregon Health Authority is planning to implement for schools in January.
"I don't know of anybody doing 1 (part per billion)," Burnham said, noting that even certified "lead-free" fixtures still have small amounts of lead in them. "That may not be realistic in every building without ripping out every bit of the plumbing and replacing it with as low of lead (plumbing) as you can buy. And even then you may not get it."
As it is, the district has retested, replaced and reopened many of its 2,267 drinking water fixtures in schools in recent months. The fixtures that are continuing to show lead concentrations above 15 parts per billion are out of service, according to the district.
Those fixtures, Burnham said, probably need to have the pipe in the wall replaced.
"That's the next logical step," he said. "We haven't done any of that yet."
Burnham said that work is likely to happen in 2019.
The drinking water fixture test data does not include the other 8,000 fixtures, such as outdoor spigots, sinks and other water sources not designated for drinking in Portland Public Schools' approximately 90 buildings.
Children under age 6 are especially susceptible to the damaging effects of lead poisoning, which interrupts normal development and can cause learning difficulties, irritability and other negative impacts.
At Sacajawea Head Start in Northeast Portland — a school for more than 800 low-income 3- and 4-year-olds — a metal drinking fountain in the hallway by the kitchen tested slightly above the action level for copper and nearly five times higher than the action level for lead.
In 2016, water lead tests revealed nearly every school in the district had at least one fixture with lead concentrations above the EPA's action level. Oddly, that included Rosa Parks Elementary School, which was built 15 years after the federal government banned the heavy metals in water systems through the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule.
Many have pointed the finger at the Portland Water Bureau, which is revising its pH balance to make the water less likely to leach out the heavy metals from properties' plumbing.
There is no lead in the Portland mainline water system, according to the bureau. An issue may be that Portland's water is unusually corrosive to household and business' pipes, fixtures and solder that contain lead.
Jaymee Cuti, a water bureau spokeswoman, said the bureau has recently raised the pH of its water and plans to fully implement its Improved Corrosion Control Treatment plan by the spring of 2022.
Check the latest water test results from your school on the district website.
See a June story on the district's plans for lead mitigation.
UPDATE (11/13/18): Added reference to Oregon Health Authority's proposed lead concentration limit.