LONG BEACH — Recent voluntary testing for lead in Ocean Beach School District’s water supply revealed that the water is safe — unless you get tempted to drink from a janitor’s closet sink or urinal.
Though maintenance crews did find higher-than-acceptable levels of lead in some water sources, there is little danger to students and staff — the taps that didn’t meet standards improved with flushing, are generally not used for drinking water, and still have fairly low overall levels of lead. The district has since taken precautions to prevent anyone from consuming potentially contaminated water, OBSD Superintendent Jenny Risner and Maintenance Supervisor Jerry Bruner said on Dec. 19.
Starting in the late 1970s, the federal government began setting new building standards intended to reduce exposure to herbicides, lead and other common toxins. The government also set acceptable limits for such contaminants in the water supply, Bruner said. Washington law says schools and other facilities should test their water supplies to be sure they meet federal standards, but doesn’t provide any funding for the testing. Since it’s an “unfunded mandate,” schools don’t have to test. However, recent news stories about contamination in Portland, Oregon, and Flint, Michigan “raised awareness that maybe schools should be voluntarily taking it upon themselves to look at drinking water,” Bruner said.
Earlier this year, Education Service District 112 — the regional authority for Southwest Washington school districts — urged schools to test their water, and negotiated a reduced fee with BSK & Associates, a company that does water testing. Risner and Bruner said the testing, which cost about $2,700, wasn’t in the budget, but they felt it was important to know whether OBSD’s water was safe. Eventually, the ESD will use a federal grant to reimburse the school for about half the cost, Bruner said.
Exposure to lead is still a significant problem in America, especially for young children, who can suffer ill effects including slowed growth and development, reduced IQ, and behavioral problems. According to the federal Center for Disease Control, about 4 million U.S. households still have children that are being exposed to high levels of lead from lead-based paint, old plumbing and other sources.
With many low-budget and older housing units, Pacific County has fairly high levels of lead-exposure risk, according to data from the Washington Tracking Network, a public health data tool sponsored by the state Department of Health. Using census data collected between 2008 and 2013, WTN researchers found that statewide, about 15 percent of housing units have a lead exposure risk, compared to 33 percent of housing units in Raymond. Elsewhere in the county, rates ranged from about eight percent in the Long Beach area, 10 percent in Ocean Park, 20 to 22 percent in Seaview and Naselle, and about 27 percent in the other northern parts of the county.
Bruner said most school campuses have been remodeled since about 2005, so he didn’t expect to find a lot of lead at the elementary and middle schools. But he did worry about some of the auxiliary buildings like the bus barn and stadium, as well as the Ilwaco High School campus, which was built in the late 1960s.
Starting in September, maintenance staff took 161 samples from “all reasonable sources for drinking,” Bruner said. “We excluded toilets, urinals, and non-potable water sources.” In the first round of testing, the crews simply turned on the taps, and sampled whatever came out.
About 40 samples turned out to be “dirty,” meaning that they exceeded the acceptable limit of 0.02 milliliters of lead per liter of water. Most of those were at the maintenance shop, the bus barn and Ilwaco High School. None were from drinking fountains or food service water sources, Bruner said, although two sinks at Ocean Park Elementary that are very occasionally used as sources of drinking water tested “dirty.”
When a water source initially shows too-high lead levels, state protocol recommends doing a second test after allowing the water to run for 30 seconds. That helps determine whether the problem is with the water itself, or if the lead just leached into stagnant water in the pipes. Bruner did the second test on about seven random “dirty” sources, and virtually all of those came out clean, indicating that the problem really only exists when water is allowed to sit for a long time.
The lead levels were generally barely over the limit, with just a couple of exceptions, mostly in utility sinks. For example, a tap in the bus barn had a level of 0.033 per liter in the first test, and 0.0079 in the second test. The highest lead level was in a sink in the IHS band room that is virtually never used. It showed a level of 0.43 in the first test, but the water had been sitting in the pipes so long that it was rusty, Bruner said. After the flush, it tested at an acceptable level of 0.011.
At those levels, Bruner said, a person would have to consume huge amounts of water to suffer any ill effects.
When Bruner asked for recommendations, ESD officials said his options included everything from replacing all of the plumbing, to doing nothing at all. After talking it over, he and Risner agreed that the risk of exposure was low enough that they could simply warn people not to use the limited number of potentially contaminated taps. Bruner and his staff went around during school hours, posting signs above each source of non-potable water, and making sure teachers and students understood why they shouldn’t drink from them.
“I think it’s wiser and easier to put the signs up to notify people so there is awareness there, rather than tearing all of the plumbing out of the buildings and starting over again,” Bruner said.
Students reported that Bruner’s staff even put a “Water is not safe for drinking” sign over a urinal in a boys’ bathroom at IHS, but Bruner laughed when asked about that. He said he suspected a mischievous kid had relocated one of the signs as a joke.
Bruner said that if, and when the legislature funds lead-testing, schools will begin testing their facility on a repeating five-year cycle, starting with elementary schools and working up to high schools. In the meantime, he said, OBSD staff will continue to monitor the situation voluntarily.
“I think we’ve done as much as we can,” Bruner said. “It was a good faith effort.”