High Lead Levels Costly for Maryland Schools

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says seven primary and secondary schools in Maryland outside of Baltimore have reported high levels of lead in their tap water at least once since 2013.

They comprise a quarter of the 28 small water systems statewide where lead has been found above the federal standard of 15 parts per billion in the past three years. These are mostly well-water systems serving individual buildings or businesses.

Laytonsville Elementary in Montgomery County, just outside Washington, D.C., was on bottled water for years, starting in the 1990s, to keep students from drinking well water that has exceeded the lead rule in nine of 10 sampling periods since 1993. County public schools spokesman Derek Turner said the school system continues to provide bottled water, at a cost of $1,500 a year, despite completion last year of a $300,000 connection to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission's EPA-compliant water system.

"We haven't done a review of the pipes that were in the school already. We don't want to take a chance, so we're just keeping them on bottled water," he said.

Harford County Public Schools officials weren't surprised when tap water sampled last year at a classroom building for third-to-fifth graders at Youth's Benefit Elementary showed lead at 130 parts per billion, nearly nine times the federal standard.

The well-water system serving the 43-year-old building in Bel Air has tested above 15 ppb eight times since 1993, making it among Maryland's most consistent transgressors of the Environmental Protection Agency's action level. Lead poisoning in children can cause brain and kidney damage, and while no amount of lead exposure is deemed safe, the EPA rule calls for water systems to keep levels below 15 ppb.

Harford County schools spokeswoman Jillian Lader said the school system has supplied Youth's Benefit with bottled water since 2009, secured the water fountains, posted warnings at taps and sent all the required notices to parents and guardians. She said a more permanent solution is coming in August 2017, when the nearly 550 students and staff are scheduled to move into a new, $37 million school with an EPA-compliant water system.


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That kind of spending is beyond the reach of most of the 28 small water systems statewide that have reported lead levels above the federal standard at least once between Jan. 1, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2015. Seven of the water systems serve primary or secondary schools, and most rely on bottled water or chemical treatment to reduce corrosion of lead-bearing pipes. The Baltimore city school system has supplied bottled water to all its schools since 2007 due to high lead levels from the plumbing.

Laura Runyeon fought for a new Youth's Benefit school as president of the school's PTA in 2012, citing lead levels as one reason. She said the elementary school complex was first targeted for replacement in 1996.

"We had been on the project list for many years," said Runyeon, now a school board member in the county northeast of Baltimore. "Because of funding restrictions and other shifts in priorities, the capital projects list in the county had been delayed a number of times."

The Somerset County public school system has dealt repeatedly with high lead levels at Deal Island Elementary School, serving about 150 students, teachers and staff on the Eastern Shore. A pipe replacement project, completed in 1997, was followed by installation of a chemical treatment system after sampling in September 2014 detected excessive lead in tap water from one classroom sink, said Sean Kenny, a Maryland Department of the Environment regulatory and compliance engineer. 

The school system provided bottled water for the rest of that school year at a cost of about $1,000, said Daniele Haley, supervisor of facilities and capital planning. Sampling at the school last year showed lead at an EPA-compliant 9 ppb, down from 16 in 2014.

The testing procedure requires samples from at least five taps, and one bad tap can skew the results for the entire system. That's what happened in 2014 at The Jefferson School, a special-education facility near Frederick owned by the Baltimore-based Sheppard Pratt Health System. Four samples tested below 15 ppb but one from a sink in the school finance office tested at 186, said Sheppard Pratt spokeswoman Jessica Kapustin. 

Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson confirmed the story and said the problem was corrected by replacing the faucet and supply lines.

The three other schools reporting elevated lead readings in recent years are all private institutions, and one of them has closed.

Indian Creek Lower-Middle School in Crownsville reported 25 ppb from sampling in 2014 but 0 ppb from follow-up sampling last year after filtration systems were installed and all water fountains and some faucets were replaced.

Most Blessed Sacrament School in Berlin reported 19 ppb in 2014, but no excessive lead in 2015. The school has installed new corrosion control equipment, Apperson said.

Free State Montessori School in Fork, reported 18 ppb in samples collected in 2014. The school closed last June, Apperson said. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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