Tests indicate high lead levels in water at three Harford schools

Elevated lead levels have been found in water fixtures at two of the Harford County Public Schools buildings tested so far under new state regulations, school system officials said.

At least one private school building in the county also has tested positive for elevated lead in its water fixtures.

Any water sources within a school that have lead levels of more than 20 parts per billion must be remediated, according to a state law passed in 2017 that went into effect with the publication of testing regulations April 9.

“If any test results reflect an actionable lead level, immediate action will be taken by HCPS,” Jillian Lader, manager of communications of Harford County Public Schools, wrote in an email.

The school system has received results from four of the 11 schools it has tested thus far, Lader said.

Of those four, levels higher than 20 parts per billion were reported at William Paca Elementary and Old Post Road Elementary, schools on the same campus on Philadelphia Road in Abingdon, Lader said.

The two are among the oldest school buildings in the Harford system, which has 53 buildings in use, counting Patterson Mill Middle and High School in Bel Air as a single building. The Old Post Road building was constructed in the mid-1950s, the William Paca building a decade later, according to the HCPS website; however, both have undergone periodic renovations since.

The private John Carroll School in Bel Air also tested its water and found lead levels higher than 20 ppb in 19 sources in the building, Kathy Walsh, director of marketing and communications at John Carroll, said. The John Carroll building opened in 1964 but has also undergone renovations in the ensuing 50-plus years.

Harford Day School in Bel Air is scheduled to have its water tested in early September, once students return to school Sept. 4, Valerie Kohles, director of finance and operations, said.

Officials at Harford Christian School in Darlington did not respond to a request for information.

The new state regulations require testing of every water fixture in schools that receive water from a public utility, according to Lader and the regulations published by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Several Harford public schools buildings, including the North Harford Elementary, Middle and High campus, the Fallston High and Middle campus, Youth’s Benefit Elementary in Fallston, North Bend Elementary in Street and Jarrettsville Elementary get their water from onsite wells and thus would be exempt from testing under the regulations.

Previously, schools were not required to test lead levels in water. The new law required the first tests to be completed by July 1, after the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Maryland State Department of Education, the Department of General Services and Maryland Occupational Safety and Health wrote regulations.

Schools built after 1988 with students in kindergarten through fifth grades were required to complete testing by July 1; schools built after 1988 with students in sixth through eighth graders have until July 1, 2019 and schools built after 1988 with students in ninth through 12 grades have until July 1, 2020 to finish testing.

Although initial testing in buildings constructed before 1988 was required to be done by July 1, schools could receive a waiver.

Schools can delay testing, if they’ve recently conducted a test that meets the state’s standards and resulted in a reading that was below 20 parts per billion. Schools can get out of testing altogether if they tested their water within the past five years and lead levels were lower than 5 parts per billion, if only bottled water is used for drinking and food prep at the school or if the building’s plumbing is completely lead-free.

Schools built after the effective date of the regulations, April 9, must complete the testing within 12 months of the date of occupancy. That does not apply to any Harford public schools.

Lead can cause serious health problems if too much enters the body from drinking water or other sources, according to the letter John Carroll School sent home to parents and guardians after elevated lead levels were found at the school earlier this year.

It can damage the brain and kidneys, interfere with the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to all parts of the body, according to the letter. Lead is stored in the bones and can be released later in life and when women are pregnant. They can pass lead from from their bones to their fetus, which could affect brain development.

Exposure to lead comes from a variety of sources, including lead-based paint, dust or soil, some plumbing materials, pottery, pewter, brass fixtures food and cosmetics, according to the letter. It can also come from exposure in the workplace or some hobbies that use brass faucets, fittings and valves.

Lead gets into drinking water through “corrosion of plumbing products containing lead,” according to the EPA. Federal law banned the use of lead in new plumbing or repairs in 1986 and in 1988 the federal Lead Contamination Control Act was passed to identify and reduce lead in drinking water at schools.

Children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning, which studies have shown can be deadly. Or, it could result in an array of negative health effects, including reduced IQ, impaired growth, hearing loss and severe neurological problems.

Harford public schools

At the 11 schools tested, 1,291 samples were taken, according to Lader.

The tests at William Paca were done May 15-17, when 85 samples were collected. One drinking fountain, in Room 3, had a lead level of more than 20 ppb, Lader said.

“The fountain has not been in use and the water to the fixture was already turned off. The fixture will be permanently disconnected from service and removed from the building,” the school system wrote in a letter to parents and guardians of students at the school.

The Old Post tests were done May 18-19, when 89 samples were taken. A drinking fountain in Room A-3 was found to have lead levels exceeding the action level, Lader said.

“Water to the fixture was turned off within 24 hours of receiving the test results. The fixture will be permanently disconnected from service and removed from the building,” the letter said.

HCPS still must collect 6,000 samples from 28 schools requiring testing, which must be done when schools are open to students and staff, Lader said.

“We have received approval for a one-year deferral for the remaining schools from the Maryland Department of the Environment to finish all of the samplings by June 2019,” Lader said.

John Carroll

Elevated lead levels were found in the water fixtures at the John Carroll School, but none of the drinking water sources is affected, school spokesperson Walsh said.

“None of the affected areas are water fountains or sources from which students would drink, all those sources tested fine,” Walsh said.

On June 11, 176 lead water samples were collected from the school and of those, lead levels tested at higher than 20 ppb in 19 locations.

To address the sources in question, John Carroll was required to install signs that clearly state “For handwashing only,” Walsh said.

Those signs will become permanent, according to a letter dated July 30 and sent to the John Carroll community sharing the lead testing results.

“These are all sinks where kids would really not even consider getting drinking water, so it’s more to comply with regulations than really to change behavior,” Walsh said. “We are also required to post the notice on our website for 30 days, and we had to email our current students and parents, which we did in early July.”

Joe McGrain, facilities manager at John Carroll, said the school is following the MDE guidelines which state the school will continue to monitor for lead every three years and within one year following plumbing upgrades.

Alexander Pyles of the Baltimore Sun Media Group contributed to this report.

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