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High lead levels found in drinking water at 38 Jeffco elementary schools

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District hadn't tested for lead since 1990

By Sal Christ

Test results released by Jeffco Public Schools last week have revealed that at least 38 elementary schools in the district have high levels of lead in the drinking water from at least one sink or water fountain, including 11 schools in the mountain area and in South Jeffco. 

According to documents posted on the district website, approximately 3,500 samples have been taken from 75 elementary schools since June 3, with results from 48 schools as of July 29. More than 100 of those samples showed lead levels above the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum allowable level, which is 15 parts per billion. 

A statement on the website from district officials said the district's “Environmental Services Department staff felt it would be a good, proactive measure to test our drinking water sources because a healthy, safe environment for our students and staff in our schools is a priority.”

District hadn't tested for lead in 26 years

During a brief discussion at a special meeting of the Jeffco school board last Thursday, it was revealed that the school district hadn't tested for lead since 1990 — partially because it wasn't legally required to do so.

“We tested for lead in 1990, but unfortunately a lot of that documentation isn't available to us for a number of reasons — it was handwritten or isn't computerized, for example,” said Tim Reed, executive director of facilities and planning. “We do know that a lot of water fountains were replaced.”

When school board member Amanda Stevens asked about requirements for water tests, a representative from the district's environmental services department said, “There are no requirements for regular sampling.”

“I think if we go through changing the (water) fixtures and stops, we'll be fine. It would be prudent in older schools to retest periodically,” said Karen Minteer, an environmental health specialist and a certified hazardous-materials manager. 

'There was no reason to suspect high levels'

Despite the fact that lead exposure has been linked to a number of serious health issues and both the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control say there is no known safe level of lead exposure for children or adults, the district's presentation downplayed the severity of the issue — highlighting instead the fact that a significant percentage of the 3,500 individual sample results were below 15 parts per billion. 

“I'm not trying to minimize the risk, but 15 parts per billion is about a grain of sugar in 10 gallons of water. … The results show that 93 percent of the water sources in our schools are below 15 parts per billion, and we are working to alleviate the problem,” Reed said.

While test results have not shown any schools with widespread high lead levels in the drinking water, at least 50 percent of the elementary schools in the district have at least one source with high lead content.

Furthermore, water at the district's middle and high schools has yet to be tested — a task that will begin sometime this week but will not be completed before the start of classes later this month. 

According to district spokeswoman Diana Wilson, Jeffco Public Schools has no idea how long the high lead levels have been present.

“There was no reason to suspect high levels,” Wilson said. “When we saw lead levels in drinking water making the news in other places, the age of our buildings led us to believe it would be wise to test.”

The median age of Jeffco’s schools is about 45 years.

More schools to be tested; remediation plans in the works

Moving forward, the district is set to continue testing water at more schools and has started the remediation process, beginning with Peck Elementary in Arvada. Remediation includes identifying the source of the lead, replacement of plumbing for affected water sources, and retesting of sites where high levels of lead were found.

The tests on drinking water in sinks and water fountains at all elementary schools built before 1990 will be completed before classes begin next week; at elementary schools built after 1990, sampling will be done only at drinking fountains. An official timeline for testing middle schools and high schools has not been released, and parents of students at charter schools are advised to contact those schools directly as they “handle their own facilities.”

District officials said water sources with a lead content at or above 15 parts per billion will be posted with signs stating “Do Not Drink,” and bottled water will be provided as necessary. 

The news comes about two months after the district announced that elevated levels of lead were found in several sinks and water fountains at Slater Elementary School in Lakewood and Edgewater Elementary School; drinking water at those schools was tested after lead was discovered in the water of the Head Start building the district formerly owned in Arvada. At the time, the district said it would work to eliminate the presence of lead in drinking water at its schools.

For more information, visit http://www.jeffcopublicschools.org/business/lead_tests/index.html.

Lead exposure laws in place since 1986

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which was passed in 1974 and amended in 1986 and 1996, federal law requires the use of lead-free pipe, solder and flux — particularly in the “installation or repair of any public water system” and “any plumbing in a residential or non-residential facility providing water for human consumption,” according to the EPA.

The Lead Contamination Control Act in 1988 then created lead monitoring and reporting protocols for schools across the United States, as well as the requirement to replace all water fixtures found to contain excessive levels of lead. In 1991, the Lead and Copper Rule stipulated that public water suppliers such as Denver Water monitor for lead in drinking water.

However, schools typically are not classified as "public water systems" under the Safe Drinking Water Act, meaning that testing for lead and copper is voluntary.

Contact reporter Sal Christ at sal@evergreenco.com or at 303-350-1035.

Schools with high lead levels

Arvada K-8 

Bergen Meadow Elementary, Evergreen

Bradford Elementary, Littleton

Colorow Elementary, Littleton

Deane Elementary, Lakewood

Dutch Creek Elementary, Littleton

Edgewater Elementary, Edgewater

Eiber Elementary, Lakewood

Foothills Elementary, Lakewood

Foster Elementary, Arvada

Governor's Ranch Elementary, Littleton

Green Gables Elementary, Lakewood

Green Mountain Elementary, Lakewood

Hackberry Hill Elementary, Arvada

Leawood Elementary, Littleton

Lumberg Elementary, Edgewater

Kendrick Lakes Elementary, Lakewood

Kyffin Elementary, Golden

Molholm Elementary, Lakewood

Parmalee Elementary, Indian Hills

Patterson Elementary, Lakewood

Peck Elementary, Arvada

Peiffer Elementary, Littleton

Pleasant View Elementary, Golden

Ralston Elementary, Golden

Slater Elementary, Lakewood

Stober Elementary, Lakewood

Stony Creek Elementary, Littleton

Ute Meadows Elementary, Littleton

Vivian Elementary, Lakewood

Warder Elementary, Arvada

Welchester Elementary, Golden

Westgate Elementary, Lakewood

Lasley Elementary, Lakewood

Ryan Elementary, Westminster

Secrest Elementary, Arvada

Fitzmorris Elementary, Arvada