At Bel Air Middle School, 150 of the 296 water sources tested had lead levels higher than 20 parts per billion. “Handwash only” signs were placed at all the sinks.
At Bel Air Middle School, 150 of the 296 water sources tested had lead levels higher than 20 parts per billion. “Handwash only” signs were placed at all the sinks. (Erika Butler/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun)

Harford County Public Schools officials said they have not been surprised by the results of lead testing at schools served by public water, with slightly more than 9 percent of water sources testing at “actionable levels" thus far.

Since the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill in 2018 requiring all school water outlets on public water be tested for the presence of lead, the Harford school system has tested 31 of the 37 applicable schools.

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As of Tuesday, more than 6,000 water sources had been tested in Harford County Public Schools since the end of the 2017-2018 school year. Of those sources, which include kitchen sinks, hand-washing sinks, water fountains and water sources not actively in use when the samples were taken, 558 water samples had what are considered “actionable levels,” levels of lead above 20 parts per billion, according to Harford County Public Schools.

Of those 558 water sources, 24 were water fountains, all of which were shut down and are no longer in use. Signs have been posted at all of the sinks to make visitors aware of the test results.

School officials didn’t know what to expect with 6,000 tests to be done, but Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent of operations, said they haven’t been surprised. “The reality is we’re dealing with old sinks, some have lead fittings,” Brown said.

He assured parents who have students in schools that the drinking water is fine.

“Out of 6,000 sources tested, 24 fountains have come back above the action level. That says to me the fountains are fine,” Brown said. “The water isn’t bad.”

“There’s not a problem with the drinking water, we just have old fixtures,” Brown said.

In only two schools — Darlington Elementary and Forest Lakes Elementary — did all of the water sources tested have lead levels below 20 parts per billion.

Of the 29 other schools tested thus far, eight had water sources with double-digit actionable lead levels. The remaining 21 schools ranged from one to nine sources with levels higher than 20 parts per billion (ppb).

In most cases, the elevated lead levels were found in classroom and restroom sinks and some water fountains. At those sources, “handwash only” signs were placed at some sinks while others were turned off.

Elevated levels of lead in water does not present a danger when washing hands, because human skin does not absorb lead in water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The only kitchen sinks where lead levels were elevated were at Hickory Elementary, where one tested at 61.2 ppb and another at 29 ppb, according to the school system’s website.

Flush samples were collected and analyzed from the two kitchen sinks and came back with levels below the detection level. Until the fixtures are replaced, the sinks will be flushed before they are used and will only be used for cleaning and new samples can be taken, according to a report for the school.

Two sinks elsewhere at Hickory Elementary that tested more than 20 ppb were turned off.

Bel Air Middle School had the most sources — 150 — with lead levels higher than 20 ppb; 296 samples were collected Jan. 5 and 7. “Handwash only” signs were placed at all the sinks. Sinks in Room 21 and 22 tested at 6,090 ppb and 3,390 ppb, respectively.

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Aberdeen Middle and Edgewood Middle both had 62 water sources test at levels higher than 20 ppb.

At Aberdeen Middle, the highest result was in Room 133 at 7770 ppb, the lowest was a classroom sink in Room 138 at 20.6 ppb.

In Room 53 at Edgewood Middle, one sink tested at 4,240 ppb and another tested at 1,440 ppb.

“The reality is we have facilities with old sinks," Brown said. “When they made the faucets on these sinks, some have lead fittings.”

In schools with a high number of actionable water sources, the fixtures would be replaced if a capital project were to be undertaken.

“But we’re not going to replace all the science lab sinks throughout a building,” Brown said. “They’re OK for use, just not OK for drinking.”

The outlier numbers could be from water sources that “haven’t been used in 15 years,” like a sink in a janitor’s closet or from old science lab sinks, Brown said.

“A lot of them are not being used, but because they’re connected to water, we have to test them,” he said. “It just depends on the location of the fixtures and age of the fixtures, how long the water was sitting in the fixtures, if they were used recently."

Other schools with 10 or more water sources at more than 20 ppb were the Center for Educational Opportunity, 44; Havre de Grace Middle, 36; Patterson Mill Middle/High, 31; Joppatowne High, 30; and C. Milton Wright High, 21.

Still to be tested are Aberdeen, Bel Air, Edgewood and Havre de Grace high schools; Magnolia and Southampton middle schools, and Bakerfield, Emmorton and Red Pump elementary schools.

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