Education

CMS found lead in water at 27 schools. Dozens more are untested. Should you worry?

This is bound to set off alarms in homes across the county: When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools ran lead tests on drinking fountains and sinks at 58 schools last fall, 27 had unacceptably high levels of the dangerous element that can be found in older plumbing.

Some schools, such as Dorothy Vaughan Academy of Technology, Bain Elementary and University Park Creative Arts School, had several spigots producing high levels of lead. Trillium Springs Montessori in Huntersville logged one lead reading that was more than 28 times higher than the state action level.

And while CMS says all the problem fixtures have been fixed, removed or permanently put out of use, more than 100 schools — including 32 built before 1989 — will open to students later this month without having been checked (see which schools were tested and which had problems in the list below).

It’s reasonable for families who send kids to those schools or employees who work there to have concerns. Lead is toxic for everyone, but especially damaging to young children, who can suffer learning and behavioral problems, lower IQ and physical health problems at lower exposure levels than in adults. Pregnant women who ingest lead can expose their fetuses.

“I don’t think there’s any safe level for anyone,” says Dan Collins, the CMS environmental health and safety manager who oversees the lead-monitoring project. But he said there’s no indication of health issues.

Two independent experts who reviewed the CMS report at the Observer’s request also said it’s unlikely that anyone took in enough lead from the school water sources to cause health problems.

“You’re probably taking a bigger chance driving to (school) than you are drinking the water once you get there,” said M. Todd Coolbaugh, an assistant chemistry professor at Johnson C. Smith University who specializes in materials science.

“It sounds like the risk is low,” said Stephen Graham, environmental health program manager for the Mecklenburg Health Department.

The health department investigates when doctors find lead poisoning or elevated lead levels in any Mecklenburg County child. Graham said the department gets about a dozen such cases a year and has not found any in the past three years where the children ingested the lead from water or where a school was the source of the problem. All cases traced back to consumer products (such as spices and incense) or lead-based paint, Graham said.

Why test the fixtures?

The most notorious case of lead exposure in recent years has been the contamination in the drinking water in Flint, Mich. There, improper water treatment allowed lead to leach from old pipes into the water supply.

Public water systems such as Charlotte Water, the city’s utility, have to test for lead in a sampling of homes in their service areas. Charlotte Water tested 57 homes in 2016 and found one with lead in water above 15 micrograms per liter, which North Carolina sets as the level that signals a need for corrective action.

While six states have required school systems to test for lead, North Carolina is in the majority where testing is voluntary for public schools that use municipal water, like most in CMS.

Congress banned lead in water pipes, fixtures and solder — the most common sources of lead in drinking water — in 1986.

When CMS leaders gave the go-ahead to start testing schools in 2017, the system targeted elementary or K-8 schools in buildings constructed before 1989, assuming plumbers may not have discontinued lead use as soon as the federal ban took effect, Collins said.

Last fall CMS identified 58 older schools serving young students. The district paid a consultant approximately $230,000 to draw more than 1,600 samples from those schools, testing all outlets where students or staff might ingest the water. That included drinking fountains, ice machines and sinks in kitchens, nurses’ offices and teacher lounges.

Samples were taken after those fixtures had sat idle for several hours, allowing any lead that leached from plumbing and fixtures to accumulate. That revealed 53 locations in 27 schools that came in above 15 micrograms per liter — including five that topped 100.

For all the fixtures above 15, the consultant flushed the lines and tested again. In most cases that showed a dramatic drop in lead levels, though a few actually came in higher after the flush. That likely indicates lead solder further back in the water line, Collins said.

Some of the worst readings were at new schools that opened in old buildings: Trillium Springs Montessori and Dorothy Vaughan Academy of Technology. Trillium logged a reading of 430 on the first test, dropping only to 100 after the flush. The consultant’s report says that fixture was in an area accessible only to staff and turned out not to be an actual consumption point, so the district installed a sign warning staff not to use that outlet for consumption.

Vaughan had seven fixtures with high readings, including one that logged 120 at first and rose to 152 after the flush. That report says six of the problematic fixtures, including the one with the highest reading, were permanently disconnected. The kitchen steamer was returned to service after filters were installed, plumbing connections were replaced and follow-up samples came back at safe levels.

Repairing and replacing all the fixtures in the 27 schools that had high readings cost CMS $16,750, far less than the cost of testing.

What parents weren’t told

CMS notified families when the samples were being taken but did not follow up with results. Spokesman Tracy Russ says they would have been notified if the consultants had reported “serious concerns related to the health or safety of students and staff.”

So does that mean there’s no chance that anyone was exposed to unsafe levels?

“It’s difficult to give a yes or no answer to that question,” Collins said. But he noted that the highest readings turned out to be at fixtures that got little use.

Coolbaugh, the Johnson C Smith University professor, said water safety standards are set at a level that could present health risks if someone were drinking that water regularly. “If you had those levels in a home I’d say it’s a real problem,” he said of the highest school readings.

But he said it’s unlikely that any student or employee drank frequently from any of the fountains or sinks in question, especially at the start of a school day, when the level was likely to be highest.

CMS posted reports on the 58 tested schools after the Observer and WCNC inquired about the results recently (go to www.cms.k12.nc.us/cmsdepartments/construction/buildingservices/ES/Pages/Water-Testing-Program.aspx#waterreports).

If it looks or tastes bad ...

The district is now working on an inventory of schools that remain to be tested in the coming year. The 32 built before 1989 are top priority.

The challenge is that many of them are middle and high schools, which often encompass several buildings that have construction and renovation dates spanning several decades. Larger schools mean more “consumption points,” which drives up the cost of testing, Cooper said.

The condition of older CMS schools has been a sore point with educators and parents. Photos posted by a South Mecklenburg High School teacher illustrating leaks and mold at the 60-year-old school, which serves 3,100 students, recently sparked social media outrage from educators and advocates across North Carolina. Health inspectors have noted buildup on water fountains at South Meck and some other CMS schools.

South Meck faucet.jpg
A teacher at South Mecklenburg High photographed this faucet leaking rusty water, “repaired” with a plastic bag, to illustrate health and safety concerns about school buildings. Courtesy of South Meck teacher

Coolbaugh noted that some of the high lead readings in the CMS report were accompanied by high copper readings, which he said probably signals brass fixtures that include lead. “With copper, the water’s going to be really funky tasting,” he said. Copper also tends to create blue or green deposits that are likely to discourage people from using a drinking fountain.

He said families shouldn’t panic if their children attend older schools that haven’t been tested — or if they attended schools where high levels were found. But he said it always makes sense to run some water through a fountain or faucet if you’re the first person using it in the morning.

Schools with high levels

Albemarle Road Elementary: Only high reading was not at a consumption point; warning sign posted.

Ashley Park PreK-8: Filters installed, faucet replaced.

Bain Elementary (old campus): One water cooler replaced; one fixture removed; warning sign posted at a fixture that is not a consumption point.

Berryhill Elementary: One fixture removed.

Bruns Academy: High reading was not at a consumption point; warning sign posted.

Cotswold Elementary: Filters installed, faucet replaced.

Devonshire Elementary: New plumbing and fixtures installed.

Dilworth Elementary: Filters installed, faucet replaced, one fixture permanently removed.

First Ward Elementary: Filters installed, faucet replaced.

Hickory Grove: Two fixtures removed.

Hidden Valley Elementary: Three fixtures removed.

Irwin Academic Center: Filters installed, faucet replaced.

Mallard Creek Elementary: One fixture removed.

McKee Road Elementary: Water cooler replaced, filters installed, faucet replaced.

Montclaire Elementary: Filters installed, faucet replaced.

Oaklawn Language Academy: Filters installed, faucet replaced.

Olde Providence Elementary: Filters installed, faucet replaced, one fixture permanently removed.

Paw Creek Elementary: Filters installed, plumbing connections replaced on kitchen steamer.

Reedy Creek Elementary: Filters installed, faucet replaced.

Sedgefield Elementary: High reading was not at a consumption point; warning sign posted.

Starmount Elementary: High reading was not at a consumption point; warning sign posted.

Steele Creek Elementary: Three fixtures permanently removed.

Trillium Springs Montessori: High reading was not at a consumption point; warning sign posted.

University Park Creative Arts: Five fixtures removed.

Vaughan Academy of Technology: Six fixtures removed.; one had a filter added and a faucet replaced.

Westerly Hills Academy: One fixture removed; one was not a consumption point and warning sign was posted.

Winterfield Elementary: High reading was not at a consumption point; warning sign posted.

Schools with no problems

Allenbrook Elementary, Beverly Woods Elementary, Billingsville Elementary, Briarwood Elementary, Chantilly Montessori, Clear Creek Elementary, Collinswood Language Academy, Cornelius Elementary, Eastover Elementary, Elizabeth Traditional Elementary, Gunn Elementary, Huntersville Elementary, Huntingtowne Farms Elementary, Lansdowne Elementary, Marie G. Davis Academy, Matthews Elementary, McAlpine Elementary, Myers Park Traditional Elementary, Oakdale Elementary, Oakhurst STEAM Academy, Park Road Montessori, Piney Grove Elementary, Rama Road Elementary, Reid Park Academy (Amay James building), Selwyn Elementary, Shamrock Gardens Elementary, Sharon Elementary, Thomasboro Academy, Tuckaseegee Elementary, Turning Point Academy (old Pawtuckett school), Windsor Park Elementary.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms
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