High levels of lead found in water at dozens of western Massachusetts schools

AMHERST, Mass. (WWLP) - High levels of lead have been found in the drinking water at hundreds of schools in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection launched a voluntary program this fall to test the drinking water at public schools for elevated levels of lead and copper.

Scientists sampled 80,000 water taps at 930 public schools over the past 6 months.

Bethany Card of the Department of Environmental Protection told the I-Team, a majority of those schools had at least one sample that tested above the regulatory limits. “About 70% of the schools sampled have had either lead, or copper, or both exceedance above the action level,” she said.

Lead can be especially toxic for children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead poisoning can cause brain damage, slowed growth, and learning problems.

The CDC recommends pregnant women and children use filtered water if lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion, which is the regulatory limit the state and federal government has deemed safe for drinking water.

Card told the I-Team at least 78 of about 180 schools tested in western Massachusetts, had at least one water sample with high levels of lead or copper.

According to data from the DEP, out of all of the schools tested in western Massachusetts between June and January, the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District had the highest number of taps with elevated levels of lead. 67 water fixtures at 6 schools had lead levels above the regulatory limit.

Amherst Health and Community Service Director, Julie Federman told the I-Team, the water in their schools isn’t the problem. “It's not that there's lead in the water, the water that enters the schools is safe. What happens is as it goes through these fixtures, it's picking up some lead,” she said.

Superintendent Michael Morris said they've already taken short and long term steps, which includes flushing the pipes, to fix the problem. Flushing removes water that may have been in contact with the lead service line for an extended period of time, which is when lead can typically leach into drinking water.

Morris told the I-Team so far, they've spent $38,500 on repairing and retesting the fixtures. “The ones that were tested high even after we flushed for 30-seconds, those ones were taken out of service immediately, and the ones that have been repaired are either in the typical flush cycle, or have been totally repaired and are all set,” he said.

Amherst-Pelham wasn't the only school district that had high levels of lead in their water fixtures. West Springfield had 43 fixtures with lead levels above the regulatory limit, Ware schools had 23, and East Longmeadow had 15.

The DEP said since the state’s water testing program was voluntary, schools with water samples above the regulatory limit are not required to take action to fix the problem, or tell the DEP if they do.

Card told the I-Team, it’s unlikely that elevated levels of lead in drinking water have made any children sick, but also said if parents have any concerns, they should talk to their child’s physician. “Contaminated dust, or lead based paint, those are primary sources that we see causing elevated levels of lead in blood, it’s not necessarily drinking water, which we see much less exposure to. But if there are questions are concerns, parents should talk to their physicians to find out more information,” she said.

After reviewing the test results from schools in western Massachusetts, the I-Team also wanted to know whether other public buildings in the area had high levels of lead or copper in their drinking water. We went to Con-Test Analytical Laboratories in East Longmeadow for water testing supplies, then tested the water at three different locations: the East Longmeadow Public Library, a water fountain in the Granby Public Library, and a water fountain in Holyoke City Hall.

Con-Test reviewed our results, and said all of the lead levels were within the regulatory limits, which means the water at your public library, may be safer than the water at your public school.

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