CMS finds its highest lead level yet, and it’s in a school cafeteria water fountain

A drinking fountain in Garinger High School’s cafeteria logged almost 44 times the safe level of lead in the water when it was tested Oct. 17, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reported in results posted Tuesday.

That water fountain, which was taken out of service after the lead test, yielded the highest reading yet in testing that began in fall of 2017. The district drew criticism from parents and community activists when it failed to notify families about the first round of results until reporters inquired months later.

In 2017, CMS voluntarily tested more than 1,600 fixtures at 58 of its 176 schools. That round of testing, which targeted elementary and K-8 schools in old buildings, found unsafe lead levels at 27 schools. The highest was 430 parts per billion in water coming from a fixture at Trillium Springs Montessori. That is 28 times higher than the 15 parts per billion level the state considers safe.

Read Next

Read Next

This fall CMS is testing fixtures at 35 sites, most of them older middle and high schools, and releasing results as they come in. At Garinger, 68 fixtures logged safe levels, according to a report posted Tuesday afternoon. But one water cooler tested at 658 parts per billion of lead.

The letter sent to Garinger families and faculty notes that “one water cooler in the cafeteria exceeded the state standards for lead and it has been taken out of service” but says nothing about how high that level was.

Garinger sink lead testing.JPG
A photo from the CMS water quality report shows the cafeteria drinking fountain at Garinger High that tested at 658 parts per billion of lead in the water. The red lines, which are part of the report, indicate that the fountain at right did not test high.

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, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Pregnant women who ingest lead can expose their fetuses.

Experts say it’s difficult to know what kind of exposure any student or employee might have had from any one fixture. The high reading from the Garinger water fountain was taken after the fountain had gone several hours without use, allowing lead to build up. Results from a “flush sample” that would show whether the level dropped with use were not available Tuesday.

Garinger, in east Charlotte, has about 1,775 students and 200 employees.

Read Next

Brian Kasher, a former CMS environmental health manager who has been a vocal critic of the way the district handled the first round of testing, said Tuesday evening that timely public disclosure of results is a step in the right direction. But he said the information sent to Garinger families falls short of full disclosure.

“The letter ... does not tell parents that drinking water in a cafeteria fountain regularly used by students was found to be 43.86 times state and federal health standards for lead,” he wrote in a Facebook exchange with the Observer. “This is not a time to use crafty public relations writing skills to belittle a very serious condition found in our public schools.”

Kasher noted that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that families contact a health care provider to ask about blood testing if their children have been exposed to lead.

Communications Chief Tracy Russ said Wednesday that CMS offers families both a “plain language letter,” which is “intended to give families easy to understand information on testing, results and actions that describe locations and actions in a non-technical format,” and a copy of the consultant’s report that includes the lead level. Although neither document mentions health testing, Russ noted that the water quality website says a blood test is the only way to determine lead exposure and refers people to the Mecklenburg County Health Department for further information.

CMS lead q and a.JPG
Excerpt from the Q&A on the CMS water quality page.

So far CMS has posted results for 75 buildings — mostly schools, but also a few administrative buildings. Forty-two had no unsafe readings. Thirty-three had one or more fixtures with unsafe lead levels, though some were in seldom-used locations. CMS has responded to all identified problems by adding filters or taking the fixtures out of service.

CMS has posted information about water testing and results from the first 60 sites tested on its water testing program page, which has a link from the main CMS website, From there, look for a link to “Water Testing Round 2” for details on the next 35 sites. Schools not includes on either list are not yet scheduled for testing.

Fixtures in older schools (CMS focuses on those built before 1989) are at greatest risk for leaching lead into water.

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