Baltimore County Public Schools found elevated lead levels in water samples from 12 of 19 elementary schools tested so far under a new state law mandating testing across the state.
Taps with lead levels higher than the state’s “action level” of 20 parts per billion were shut off over the past month at schools including Pot Spring Elementary, West Towson Elementary and Padonia Elementary, according to an online repository of test results.
The testing was conducted under a state law introduced by Towson Del. Steve Lafferty in the 2017 state legislative session. It required Maryland school districts to test drinking water outlets for lead before July 1 but allowed for extensions. Baltimore County applied for an extension and expects to complete testing by the spring, said Brandon Oland, a school system spokesman.
The county is in the process of testing water at all 169 schools.
“I was hoping to see that nobody had any problems,” said Lafferty of his bill. “But this was exactly the purpose. Let’s see if there are problems and correct them now before they get worse and before any child gets poisoned.
Water at more than two dozen schools across the Baltimore region contains elevated levels of lead, revealed during tests mandated by a new state law. But the majority of schools — including all of them in Baltimore, Howard and Carroll counties — have not been tested yet.
Oland said that once the testing process is completed, school districts “will know where they stand.”
“The process is the same that we’re all going through,” he said. “There’s going to be no doubt about any of our fixtures.”
Of schools tested so far, Pot Spring Elementary in Timonium had the highest percentage of fixtures with lead, with seven of 48 tests finding elevated levels. Those taps were shut off Nov. 7. Five of those outlets were drinking fountains and two were sinks, according to results posted online.
Padonia and West Towson Elementary schools each had one outlet test positive for elevated lead, according to results. Those taps were shut off Nov. 7 and Oct. 30, respectively. Neither of those taps was a drinking fountain.
The school system has been testing school drinking water for lead since 2016, Oland said. It has not made those results public.
Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles, who previously led the national water program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the new state law was an important step in making sure the state’s schools are safe and healthy.
“It’s important to focus on schools and day care facilities because sometimes they don’t fall within the regulatory boundaries of the Safe Drinking Water Act program,” said Grumbles, referring to the federal law regulating drinking water. “We need leadership at the state and local level to insist on testing, the training of custodians and those who are responsible, and sharing the results … obviously with schools and day care facilities, there’s a lot at stake.”
According to the EPA, there is no safe level of lead, especially for young children. Lead exposure can cause symptoms such as behavior issues, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia in children.
Lead can be absorbed through drinking water, but not through hand washing, according to the EPA. Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson said school systems are only required to test drinking outlets, but some are testing other sources as well.
The majority of Baltimore schools have relied on bottled water for a decade, following revelations about lead contamination that forced officials to ban students from drinking out of water fountains or sinks.
Apperson said 3.48 percent of the more than 30,000 samples submitted so far under the new law from across the state had elevated lead levels. In Baltimore County, about 3.66 percent of samples had elevated lead.
The state law requires that the lead be mitigated. Oland said in most cases, the lead is coming from a fixture, such as a drinking fountain, that is corroding, rather than from the system itself. The school system is addressing the problems by replacing those fixtures.
Oland said when the school system discovers lead, it notifies parents by sending a letter home and posting the information on the school website. The fixture is immediately turned off and a work order is submitted to have it replaced. The fixture is not turned back on until it tests negative for lead, he said.
Pot Spring Elementary PTA President Marie Depew said Nov. 16 that parents were scheduled to receive a letter about the lead testing from the school that day, one week after the taps were shut off. The mother of first- and fourth-grade boys said she wished the news had come sooner, but said she understood that it was likely delayed because the central school system has to approve communications from the principal.
Lafferty said that when he was working with school systems to draft the bill, Baltimore County school officials were resistant “because they knew it was going to be a big cost” — something he said he understood but disagreed with.
In Baltimore County, all schools built before 1990 provide bottled water, but Oland did not have information about whether they also discourage students from drinking from fountains.
Depew said at Pot Spring, children have had bottled water available for “a while,” and some faucets have signs saying they are only for hand washing.
“Of course I’m concerned about it,” Depew said of the results. “Every parent would be concerned. I just want to make sure the safety mechanisms are in place so kids aren’t drinking water from faucets that are contaminated.”