Lead found in water at nine Howard schools

Jess Nocera
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Levels of lead that exceed federal health standards have been found in water samples taken from nine Howard County schools.

Samples were taken from water fixtures at Patapsco Middle School and St. John’s Lane Elementary School, in Ellicott City; Talbott Springs Elementary, Jeffers Hill Elementary, Oakland Mills Middle School and Oakland Mills High School, in Columbia; and three Clarksville schools, Pointers Run Elementary, Clarksville Elementary and Clarksville Middle.

In most of the cases, the high levels were in water drawn from sink fixtures. Samples were collected between Sept. 13 and Oct. 16.

“Faucets are turned off upon finding lead, so they are not used until they have been successfully remediated,” Jahantab Siddiqui, chief communications officer for the school system, said in an email.

A notice is emailed to parents and families if lead exceeds 20 parts per billion, according to schools spokesman Brian Bassett.

The Maryland Department of the Environment requires water at a faucet or fountain be shut off if lead levels exceed 20 parts per billion.

While the standard from the federal Environment Protection Agency is 15 parts per billion, the agency focuses on water suppliers while “the state regulation is aimed at sampling drinking water outlets supplied by municipal sources,” Chris Madden, the indoor environmental quality manager for the school system, said in an email.

The water samples testing positive for lead were in the range of 22 to 288 parts per billion, according to school data. In the case where a science classroom sink at Oakland Mills Middle School was found with 288 parts per billion, it was not in use, according to the school system.

The school system is not aware of any student or staff member requiring medical assistance for lead exposure, Madden said.

“If somebody has a specific health concern believed to be associated with lead we would encourage them to consult with their health-care provider,” Madden said in an email.

Once a fixture is turned off, additional testing is done to determine the cause and repairs are made, according to Madden.

All 77 Howard schools will be tested for lead by 2020 as required by state law. According to the state environmental department, testing must occur once every three years and be conducted when school is in session.

Drinking fountains, cafeteria sinks, ice machines and any other outlets that dispense cooking or drinking water are to be sampled.

“Historically all water fountains in county schools have been tested for lead,” Madden said during a presentation to the school board.

The last time all water fountains in county schools was tested was 1989, according to Madden. The school system “voluntarily completed the sampling” based on EPA recommendations at the time, Madden said in an email.

Prior to the law being passed, the school system would sample water fountains for lead as schools and additions were built or if a school was renovated.

Lead exposure can cause physical and behavioral problems, including a lower IQ, hyperactivity and slow growth in a child, according to the EPA.

Before enrolling in child care, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten or first grade, students are required to be tested for lead in their blood, according to the school system’s website.

The county’s health department does not provide blood tests for lead poisoning in children but can provide information about lead poisoning prevention, according to Matt Wilson, a health department spokesman.

The Childhood Lead Registry, part of the state environment department, performs childhood blood lead surveillance statewide for children.

If a positive test was recorded for a child by a Howard pediatrician, the state department of health would notify the county’s health department. The county would follow-up with the family of the child and the pediatrician to provide resources and case management services, Wilson said.

In the past two years, 93 reports of blood lead levels in Howard children under the age of six were greater than 5 micrograms per deciliter, according to Wilson.

In the recent Howard County tests:

* Of the 100 samples taken from Pointers Run Elementary, one sample of lead was found in a classroom fountain. The fountain was off during the sample and so, “turning on [the] valve to collect a sample may have influenced results,” according to school data. The elementary school was sampled between Oct. 9 and the 16.

* Sixty-two samples were tested from Oakland Mills high school on Oct. 13 and the 15, with two cases of lead being found in a kitchen sink and a hose bib on a stadium concession stand.

* Patapsco Middle had five cases, four in classroom sinks and in one kitchen sink of the 44 samples taken on Sept. 29.

* Of the 43 samples collected at Talbott Springs last month, five elevated lead levels were found in two classroom sinks, two classroom faucets — not the fountain portion, meaning the sink exceeded the 20 parts per billion level but the fountain did not — and in one administrative work room sink. Talbott Spring was tested on Sept. 13, 14 and the 25.

* At Clarksville Elementary, 38 samples were collected on Sept. 25 and the 26, with one case being found in a sink fixture.

* Thirty-three samples were taken from St. John’s Elementary on Oct. 4 and the 5 and one classroom sink was found with elevated lead levels.

* On Oct. 13, 31 samples were taken from Clarksville Middle with two cases being found in a planning office sink and a science office sink.

* Jeffers Hill Elementary was tested for lead on Sept. 26 and one sink fixture was contaminated out of 25 samples.

* Of the 22 samples collected from Oakland Mills Middle on Sept. 29, five sinks — two classroom sinks and three science preparation room sinks — were found with high lead levels.

The school system will roll out its lead plan through a three-tiered system between 2018 and 2020.

All elementary and any middle or high schools built before 1988 will be tested by the end of the school year, according to the school system. Simultaneously, testing will begin for middle schools constructed during or after 1988 and all remaining schools will be tested during the 2019-2020 school session.

In the past two years, six schools, after undergoing a renovation or a new construction project, were tested for lead and none was detected.

The school system voluntarily decided to sample all well water schools during this testing process. Eight county schools have wells.

This story has been updated to clarify how notices are sent out.

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