AFN file photo

State environmental health officials have ruled that the drinking water is free of lead in all Kyrene District’s elementary and middle schools in Ahwatukee.

Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely announced last week that the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s statewide public school drinking water lead screening program have passing grades to the district’s elementary and middle schools in Chandler as well, but had not yet sent results back for any of its Tempe schools.

ADEQ is asking local education officials to test some 7,000 school buildings for lead in the drinking water. The state is providing the test kits and will do the analysis.

Tests results from Tempe Union High School District have not been announced.

Vesely said tests at two Ahwatukee Middle Schools found faucets not used for drinking water had to be purged of lead.

“Both faucets are in areas that are not used for drinking water, nor have student access,” Vesely said. “One area was a sink in a snack area which is no longer used at Akimel A-al Middle School (27.2 parts per billion).  The other was in a sink in one of the kitchens at Altadeña Middle School (30.3 ppb).

The state wants districts to notify parents if tests show lead readings are between 15 and 50 parts per billion. The screening program’s goal is to reduce lead exposure from drinking water in schools.  Vesely said the state suggested the lead could be purged from both faucets by running water for a minute.

“Our director of facilities, Eric Nethercutt, had the faucets at both schools purged on Wednesday, March 1. We are now awaiting a test kit to perform re-testing on both sinks. They will not be used until the all clear has been given,” she said.

“There is no immediate danger to students as the water at both schools is safe for drinking, handwashing, cleaning and toilet use,” the superintendent added.

Vesely noted that water is not a common source of high lead levels in Arizona, and that more common sources include lead paint, imported spices, imported glazed pottery and home remedies. Children may be exposed to other potential sources of lead in their homes.

ADEQ reported several weeks ago that out of results obtained from 118 schools statewide that already tested, 24 showed the presence of lead, about one out of every five.

Trevor Baggiore, DEQ's deputy director for water quality, said these were the first schools looked at in what started as a pilot program.

He said they were among schools where students are likely to be at risk, because they were built before 1987 when lead was outlawed, both for pipes as well as the solder used to connect copper pipes.

The testing protocol calls for taking samples from fixtures where the water has been sitting for at least six hours. The reason is that lead leaches into the water supply, particularly over time, which is why readings may be particularly high on Monday mornings after the water has been sitting in the pipes all weekend.

Some districts have been providing bottled water to students in some of their schools as a result of the tests.

The testing is a direct outgrowth of the nationally publicized problems of lead pollution in Flint, Michigan.

"I think the nation had kind of gone into a lull,'' Baggiore said said. "Nobody was thinking lead issues anymore until the tragic accident of things that occurred in Flint.''

"There was a lack of data on schools and water quality in schools and the lead level  (of water) being served at schools,'' he explained. "We decided to set some money aside and develop this project to identify – and eliminate – the risk to kids.''

Agency spokeswoman Caroline Oppleman said that the risk has to be put into perspective.

"Childhood lead exposure primarily comes from sources like toys, lead paint, spices, those type of things,'' she said. Older toys and older homes are more likely to have lead content.

But Oppleman said that DEQ simply had no data on what was in what children were drinking in schools. The first schools tested were those built before lead was outlawed in 1987. DEQ also targeted schools with children age 5 and younger as well as those in what state health officials consider "high-risk zip codes.''

Oppleman said the problem of high lead levels could be limited to an "isolated fixture,'' with the rest of the fountains and faucets unaffected.

If any test were to show up at greater than 50 parts per billion -- something that has not yet occurred -- Baggiore said DEQ would advise a school to turn off the fixture if possible and put up signs advising people not to drink it. And even in that situation, he said that does not mean the water needs to be cut off entirely.

"You can wash hands, you can clean and do those things with water that has elevated (levels) of lead without any health concerns,'' Baggiore said.

To this point DEQ is planning to test only public schools.

But Baggiore said local communities may want to do something more comprehensive. For example, he said the city of Scottsdale is using its own resources to test private and charter schools.

Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.

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