Oregon Schools Found With Lead In Drinking Water

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School in Portland, Oregon finds lead in its drinking water

Residents in Portland, Oregon, have recently discovered dangerous levels of lead in its schools drinking water. 

Newly released emails have revealed that school officials covered-up the fact that their water was unsafe, whilst allowing students and teachers to drink it.

Latimes.com reports:

The district also failed to disclose all it knew, and the schools’ health officer was found to have misled the public.

The two-week-old controversy has already produced a campaign to dump schools Supt. Carole Smith.

“They knew about the lead,” says one school parent, Mike Southern, who is pushing for a criminal investigation of district actions and has started an online petition to oust Smith. “They did nothing.”

Smith, superintendent of the 49,000-student district since 2007, apologized last week and took responsibility for the delay in notifying students and parents about unsafe lead levels.

“This gap in information and communications regarding health and safety cannot happen again,” she said in a statement, “and I am working to ensure that it won’t.”

Portland isn’t alone. While cities, especially those in the West, have generally shown favorable test results for municipal drinking water, school water systems — often older piping systems — are facing bigger problems.

A recent USA Today analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data found almost 350 schools and day-care centers failed lead tests 470 times from 2012 through 2015. All tested above the EPA’s lead “action level” of 15 parts per billion. One Maine elementary school came in 41 times higher.

If the action level for lead is exceeded, the EPA says, extra measures must be taken to control corrosion. Children are at particular risk for lead exposure to their central nervous system and have “no safe blood lead level,” the agency says. Exposure can result in reduced IQ and attention spans, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, behavioral problems and impaired growth.

The Portland lead test results, released at the end of May, surprised and then angered some parents when they learned the results had been known since March 31. Smith was aware of the March testing but says she didn’t learn of the results until late May.

The test results from Creston and Rose City Park elementary schools showed lead levels as high as 33 parts per billion. Retesting a month later at Creston turned up a 53 parts per billion reading, three times the action level.

Creston’s principal and some Parent Teacher Assn. members received the results on May 16, but no action was immediately undertaken. The superintendent’s office received the results May 25.

All district drinking fountains were finally shut down May 27, and students were given bottled water as replacements. Smith announced she was bringing in a local law firm to review the district’s internal response to the crisis.

The PTA was at the forefront of uncovering and responding to the dilemma. The Creston PTA sought the initial testing and, after the results became known within the district, PTA President Lisa Kensel learned Creston officials had taken no action. On May 24, she posted her own signs at the school, warning students not to drink the water.

Last week, the district reported the tests results from two Rose City Park elementary students revealed blood lead levels “that fell within the range recommended to see a doctor” for more testing. No connection to the school lead levels has yet been made.

Using record requests to dig deeper, Willamette Week revealed that high lead levels were found at over half of 90 school sites tested between 2010 and 2012, while the Oregonian reported the district hadn’t done regular, comprehensive drinking water testing in 15 years.

That was despite a 2001 determination that “most schools have at least one location where lead levels are above 15 [parts per billion],” according to then-Supt. Jim Scherzinger.

Last week, the release of district emails threw the swiveling spotlight on the district’s senior manager for environmental health and safety, Andy Fridley, who had participated in the initial testing. Critics say his messages to parents and co-workers portray him as misinformed and reluctant to take action.

If contaminants aren’t found in initial testing, he wrongly told one parent, “there is no reason to believe they will be in the future.” District spot testing, he also inaccurately said, had detected only “lead levels at or below” the action zone.

Appointed by Smith two years ago, Fridley was put on paid leave by Smith last week, along with Fridley’s boss, Chief Operating Officer Tony Magliano. Smith says she’s unsatisfied with their handling of the tests.

On Thursday, the district sent a notice to school families and staff, updating ongoing lead testing. “Congratulations,” it began, “on the completion of another school year.”

1 Comment

  1. The regulatory state agencies are themselves regulated by the legislators, who set the tone of how much pointedly investigative water quality assessment that they will tolerate … or not tolerate. Almost all state legislatures erroneously see accurate water quality assessment effort by agencies as being politically and fiscally subversive, and they reduce funding to agencies that persist in making too many waves by sampling and assessment that might point out where new problems might need fixing. This attitude by the governments are usually pervasive (in most states as well as OR and MI), and stifle agency intent. As this persists over many years it builds up a strong culture within the agencies of promoting those that will put up with the politic without comment or corrective actions and recommendations, or demoting any potential troublemakers. Currently, unsupportive legislators rule most environmental quality departments and stifle the science of environmental assessment and public health protections from toxic contaminants. We get what we pay for… or, we get what we do not want because we don’t bother to vote for. The ‘buck’ stops with who we place into office hired to look out for our public health needs, but shirk those duties in favor of corporate lobbies to ignore almost all water quality threats. Funding does note prioritized to essential science that is needed to guide our ability to SAVE money by discovering our toxic health threats so we can work toward correcting them as we are able to manage so that we no longer have to continue to pay way off into the future with health declines and medical expenses. Corporations externalize their costs onto the public in order to maximize profit…. and lobby legislators to ignore environmental assessment where ever it can be suppressed. A lot of agency ‘busy work is done to fake ‘due diligence’ but that is not science, and it is not GOOD politics that is supportive of the public wellbeing. The whole state government is to blame, because the system is broken by bad oversight. The federal agencies are similarly irresponsible for the same reasons. IMHO

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