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Lead testing of water in schools is finished

The overall picture in the District looks better, but some recent findings are alarming.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Although the overall picture of lead in the District’s drinking water looks better than the first round of testing indicated, some recent findings at individual schools are alarming, particularly in water used for food preparation. Now that the testing is complete, the results for each outlet at every school are available online.

Of more than 200 schools that were tested, 47 percent had no water outlets testing above the District’s lead action level of 10 parts per billion (ppb). Outlets that tested higher than this level were shut off immediately. Nearly one in five schools, 19 percent, had just one outlet above that level, 10 percent had two outlets above it, and 23 percent had three or more outlets shut off for high lead levels.

The District began testing in the summer of 2016, and a new round of testing will be done every five years.

Three high schools had 10 or more outlets test unsafe: Benjamin Franklin, Overbrook, and Philadelphia High School for Girls.

But the number of outlets above the level can be misleading, because school buildings can vary widely in size and thus the total number of outlets varies dramatically across schools.

For example, 15 outlets at Girls’ High tested unsafe. That number was the highest of any school in the District, and it represents about one-third of the school’s 46 outlets. Thomas Holme Elementary had nine outlets test unsafe, but they accounted for three-quarters of all water outlets in the relatively small K-6 school.

The number of outlets also doesn’t capture the severity of the lead concentration. Although most outlets at Girls’ High were within several times the District’s limit of 10 ppb, one water fountain in a locker room had 206 ppb of lead — more than 20 times the limit — and one in the cafeteria tested at 597 ppb, nearly 60 times the limit.

Many public health organizations dispute the very idea that there is a safe amount of lead in drinking water. Last year, the American Association of Pediatrics called for a federal maximum of just 1 ppb.

“We now know that there is no safe level of blood lead concentration for children, and the best ‘treatment’ for lead poisoning is to prevent any exposure before it happens,” said Jennifer Lowry, chair of the American Association of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health, in a statement. “Most existing lead standards fail to protect children. They provide only an illusion of safety. Instead, we need to expand the funding and technical guidance for local and state governments to remove lead hazards from children’s homes, and we need federal standards that will truly protect children.”

The initial lead testing was planned by the District, but the full testing of every school was the result of a push from advocacy groups that were part of the District’s Green Future Healthy Schools committee. The comprehensive testing was agreed to by the District after initial tests produced results more alarming than anticipated. The District also agreed to do routine testing every five years, and later to speed up the timeline for testing from 18 months to one year.

One of the advocacy organizations involved with the issue was the Food Trust, which convenes various groups of students to help the trust prioritize the issues it will be advocating for. Lead testing was a demand made by many of the students.

“Testing more frequently for lead was one of the things that students spoke to the School Reform Commission about,” said Aiyana Potts, the Food Trust’s project coordinator for Get Hype Philly, where the students were consulted. “A lot of it stemmed from being aware of what was happening in Flint [Michigan] at the time and being afraid that they were also drinking water that could have lead in it. From paying attention to the news, they realized this was not just an issue concentrated in one city or one state.”

The results from the lead testing indicate that drinking water is not the only concern. The highest levels in the entire District were found in “pot filler” outlets above or behind kitchen stoves — outlets used by cafeteria workers to fill pots with water before cooking.

Boiling water that is laced with lead does not reduce the lead content. Because some water evaporates in the process, boiling actually slightly increases the lead concentration, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In total, more than 10 percent of schools had at least one kitchen water outlet above the shutoff threshold. Four schools had kitchen outlets with lead levels at least 10 times that threshold: Thurgood Marshall (grades K-8), Taylor (K-5), Academy at Palumbo (9-12), and Randolph Career & Technical High School.

Water from one of Palumbo’s pot-fillers had a lead level of 1,150 ppb, and Thurgood Marshall’s kitchen had a pot-filler pumping water with 2,550 ppb — more than 250 times the shutoff threshold and the single highest lead content found at any outlet in the District.

Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health published an annual report in 2016, the Childhood Lead Poisoning Surveillance Report, that found that while lead levels are down among children across the city, elevated lead levels remain a pervasive problem, particularly in neighborhoods of high poverty with older buildings.

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