MONTPELIER — Officials presented a plan this week to address the low level of lead detected in drinking water at every school in the Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools District.
The report follows a statewide survey of 16 sample schools last fall, commissioned by the Vermont Department of Health, that shows every school in the unified district has at least one faucet with lead above the recommended level of 1 part per billion per liter. The faucets were immediately taken out of service, school officials said.
MRPSD was one of six districts that conducted voluntary testing for lead in drinking water. The report was presented at Wednesday’s School Board meeting by Facilities Director Andrew LaRosa and Michelle Thompson, a public health industrial hygienist with the state.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set an action level to address lead in drinking water of 15 ppb, but LaRosa said Vermont may set a lead limit of 3 ppb.
LaRosa said the school district responded immediately to tests showing elevated levels of lead in drinking water at Montpelier High School, Main Street Middle School, Union Elementary School and Roxbury Village School.
Parents were notified of the results, including links to the Health Department and other resources related to lead in drinking water. The information was also posted on the school district website.
Testing for lead in both public and private settings consists of a first draw of water that has been sitting idle in the water line for between eight and 18 hours (such as overnight) that usually reveals higher levels of lead. A second test, known as a flush draw, follows running the faucet for a minimum of 30 seconds, although Thompson recommended running it for at least 10 minutes to allow for a test of fresh water.
At the high school, test samples at 14 locations showed there was one faucet that tested 15 ppb that was immediately replaced. Two other faucets revealed lead levels of 2 ppb and 3 ppb, respectively, and will be retested.
At the middle school, tests at 13 locations found an older, unfiltered drinking fountain with a lead level of 3 ppb, the report says.
At the elementary school, tests at 17 locations showed one new faucet with an initial lead level of 15 ppb and 4 ppb after re-testing. According to the Health Department, new fixtures commonly show high levels of lead because replacement can dislodge debris. Another location revealed a lead level of 2 ppb. As a precaution, aerators were removed from both faucets, and the faucets were re-tested, with results pending.
At Roxbury Village School, tests at nine locations initially found five faucets with 1 ppb, two faucets with 3 ppb, one faucet with 9 ppb and one faucet with 10 ppb. After secondary flush draws of water, lead levels at all the faucets dropped below 1 ppb. However, there were also four readings of 4 ppb at “sink bubblers,” which can be problematic, the state says, and the fixtures were permanently removed.
Thompson said tests for lead in drinking water in schools aren’t required because municipalities already do so at water sources and in certain homes.
Only schools with an enrollment of at least 25 students that rely on well water are required to test for lead because the state classifies wells as private water sources. There are about 150 schools in Vermont with private water.
Typically, lead enters the water supply through contact with older lead pipes, soldered pipe joints (outlawed in 1988) and faucets, Thompson said. Lead exposure can cause damage to the brain, nervous system and kidneys, and can elevate blood pressure.
The school district has directed students to only drink water or fill water bottles from approved and tested water fountains and filling stations. It also installed filters in the water supply for home economics classes and nurses’ stations, and posted notices at all sinks that advise students to only use the water for handwashing.
LaRosa said any fixture that tested above 1 ppb would be replaced, noting fixtures are likely more problematic than the water lines. But replacing fixtures isn’t so simple: Ideally, water lines should be shut off, which is impractical when students are in school and during the winter, LaRosa said.
LaRosa said the school district will continue working with the Heath Department and will develop a communications plan for parents and guardians. He said it could cost between $3,000 and $5,000 to address the issue.
Meanwhile, another test for radon showed the schools only had background levels of the gas that are not problematic, Thompson said.
For more information, visit the MRPSD website at https://sites.google.com/mpsvt.org/mrpscentraloffice/facilities.