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Lead level almost 20 times benchmark among 32 St. Louis school buildings with elevated levels

An "out of order" sign hangs from the pipes of a water fountain at Patrick Henry Elementary School in St. Louis.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
An "out of order" sign hangs from the pipes of a water fountain at Patrick Henry Elementary School in St. Louis.

Updated after board meeting with test results — St. Louis Public Schools has found elevated lead levels in 88 district water fountains and sinks, with almost a dozen water sources testing at 10 to 20 times the level requiring correction.

A water fountain at Fanning Middle School in the Tower Grove South neighborhood had the highest lead concentration at 280 parts per billion.

While no level of lead is considered safe, the Environmental Protection Agency requires public water systems like the city of St. Louis to take action if lead levels higher than 15 parts per billion are found in the water it supplies.   

The district has set the bar lower to 10 parts per billion.

Once that water enters a service line it becomes the responsibility of the associated school or property owner, according to city officials. But only public water systems are required to test lead levels.

Babies, young children and pregnant women are at the most risk for lead exposure. Health consequences for elevated lead levels include reduced IQs, behavioral changes and altered brain development.

“Any number above 10 [parts per billion] concerns me, but we knew that as soon as we received the data we turned the fountain off,” district Superintendent Kelvin Adams said after the presentation of the final results. “But I knew we had an action plan that would be aggressive in terms of addressing everything.”

Lead in the schools: What you need to know

After being presented with the test results, the three members of the district’s appointed board approved $1 million to implement that action plan. But depending on how many pipes and fixtures end up needing replaced, Adams said the final cost could be higher.

The district decided to test all water sources for lead at the end of last school year after a Flint, Mich., water crisis put the issue in the news.

Adams said the testing wasn’t done earlier because it wasn’t an issue until recently.

“We have been as aggressive as we can. Sometimes you don’t know that a problem exists. Once you are made aware of it the real challenge is what you do about it. And so we think have we done the most that we could do at this point in time and as aggressively as we can.”

What is the plan to address lead in water?

Preliminary testing results completed before the new school year identified almost all of the fountains and sinks with elevated lead levels. As soon as test results came back those sources were blocked from use. The district has been utilizing bottled water where necessary as a replacement.

The 43 fountains and sinks with levels between 10 and 20 parts per billion will be retested. If the new test also comes back over 10 parts per billion the water source will undergo the same process as the 45 sources that came back over 20 parts per billion: the cause of the lead will be identified and corrected and the fountain or sink won’t be used until the lead level goes down.

Water sources with elevated lead levels will be retested each year, and the remaining 700 plus fountains and sinks in the district will be tested every three years.

What are the causes?

Prior to the release of the final results, district spokesperson Patrick Wallace said high lead levels found in newer buildings were a sign the lead likely was introduced at faucets and water fountains.

Schools with higher levels include at least three built after Congress outlawed lead pipes in 1986: Vashon High School, Gateway Middle School and Clyde C. Miller Career Academy.

But the first water faucets retested after being replaced show mixed results.

Eleven tested clear of lead and have been turned on, but two remained above 10 parts per billion.

“We are going to look at any option that we have (including pipes) to make sure we correct these problems,” said Roger CayCe, deputy superintendent of operations for the district. “We really don’t know what we need to do but we will continue to investigate those options.”

Wallace said this could be the first time the district did a comprehensive test for lead in the water — lead testing hasn’t been done for at least the past 10 years.

Repairs and replacements of fixtures and pipes are slated to be complete by the end of this October.

Other school districts testing for lead

Numerous school districts in the St. Louis region are in the process of testing their drinking water in light of the elevated levels found at St. Louis Public Schools.

Pat Washington of University City Schools said her district has never tested for lead in the water before, but is planning to do so now. She said water samples will be collected starting next week.

The Ladue School District’s Susan Downing said lead testing hasn’t been done for several years but the district will do so soon. No elevated lead levels were found the last time it was tested.

We feel like over the last 10 to 15 years most of the faucets and fixtures within our buildings have been replaced,” Downing said, “But we do plan to do testing in the next few weeks, really just because of the concern in the community.”

We don’t believe there will be any problems, but we’re going to go ahead and do that just to be sure,” Downing added.

The Ferguson-Florissant School District tested for lead a few years ago and found none, spokesman Kevin Hampton said. The district is also testing again this year, a few buildings at a time.

“We started with the oldest,” Hampton said. “The six so far are clear.”

The Edwardsville, St. Charles and Pattonville  school districts also confirmed plans to test for lead with St. Louis Public Radio.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.