The Baltimore school system is abandoning 15 years of efforts to remove the lead in its water fountains and will instead provide bottled water in coolers to all schools.
Yesterday's announcement came after the city Health Department discovered that 10 fountains that had passed previous tests still contained unacceptably high levels of lead. Once schools chief Andres Alonso learned that it would be cheaper to provide bottled water to all schools than to continue lead testing, he said, the decision was a "no-brainer."
"This is not a very close call," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner. "It just would cost so much more to test and fix and test and fix than doing what I think people would prefer anyway."
The Health Department collected water samples last month from 84 randomly selected fountains, all of which had passed previous inspections. While 74 of the fountains had lead levels below the limit of 20 parts per billion, 10 fountains had levels above the maximum allowed.
The 10 fountains, which were immediately turned off, were at four schools: City College, Carver Vocational-Technical High, Frederick Douglass High and Northwood Elementary. All those schools had bottled water already, so officials said students likely were not drinking regularly from the fountains.
While other area school systems have brought in bottled water as needed to address water quality issues, Baltimore appears to be the first in the region to ditch water fountains entirely.
Around the country, urban school systems with aging buildings have spent millions of dollars trying to get lead out of their water. Seattle brought in bottled water during the 2004-2005 school year as it replaced fountains and pipes. Last year, The Seattle Times reported, at least 35 schools were again found to have high lead levels.
In Baltimore, water coolers are expected to be at all schools by tomorrow. All water fountains are being turned off.
The system expects to spend about $675,000 a year on the bottled water. It is now spending $350,000 a year for coolers at schools without enough working fountains, plus $275,000 for staff and consultants to oversee lead testing and $50,000 for laboratory analysis -- amounting also to $675,000.
But in addition, hundreds of custodians have been required to flush each water fountain daily, and other school and Health Department employees are regularly called upon to help. And officials said the fountains are regularly vandalized, resulting in further costs.
The move to bottled water ends years of struggle to remove lead from the fountains in city schools.
The Environmental Protection Agency ordered lead testing of school water in 1988. In 1992, Baltimore's results came back showing the presence of lead in many fountains. Most of the contaminated fountains were shut off, but over the years, some were turned back on.
In 2003, the school system acknowledged that children were still drinking from fountains that were supposed to have been shut down a decade earlier. Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner at the time, ordered all fountains in the city schools turned off, and coolers were installed across the system on a temporary basis.
After repairs and testing, the first fountains were turned on again in 2004. But school staff and students complained about losing their bottled water, and in some cases, schools continued receiving the coolers even after the fountains were on. Meanwhile, the testing of fountains continued with no end in sight.
"When I got the call from Dr. Sharfstein ... that fountains previously cleared weren't passing, my heart sank," said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Baltimore-based Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. "But I think the response was solid. ... It's not the greenest response, but at least it's the coolers rather than the little bottles."
Lynn R. Goldman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former EPA official, said lead in water can come from a variety of sources, and a small amount can poison a child. Lead contamination can come from the water fountain fixture itself, and it can also come from pipes.
"They've chased and chased and chased after these potential sources of lead," said Goldman, who helped Sharfstein analyze the test results, "and although they were able to get most of them, they weren't able to get them all."
She endorsed Alonso's decision but said the outcome is "too bad because the city's drinking water is pretty darned good. In general, I wouldn't say that people need to drink bottled water."
Even with some water fountains on at City College, most students have been drinking from the coolers, said Laurie Ansley, whose daughter is a sophomore.
Ansley, an architect, gave a presentation to her daughter's science class a few weeks ago in which she used the school water fountain as an example of a "gray water" source: not drinkable but OK for hand washing and toilet flushing.
"It's really sad that's the case," she said.
At Northwood Elementary, parent Sheila Slade-Lee said, "They have bottled water in the hallways, but the other day that cooler was empty."
She said the assistant principal has gone out to get new water coolers herself.
"If that's the case, then we need to hear about it," Alonso said in response to the mother's concerns. "If there are glitches in terms of the mechanics of the process, we can always fix them. It's easier than fixing a fountain or the piping in a school."
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