Portland schools hit by lead scare
Portland, Ore. — In a city well-known for its green activism, an environmental threat has bubbled up in an unexpected place: the drinking water at some public schools.
The Willamette Week newspaper reported late Tuesday that over half of the 90 school sites tested between 2010 and 2012 had elevated levels of lead in the drinking water at some locations.
The report, based on a public records request, landed during an emergency meeting already underway to discuss why the Portland Public Schools failed to disclose elevated lead levels at two schools for nearly two months — and left the taps running for days while it completed repairs.
That news, first reported by The Oregonian last week, had already galvanized parents and led to an online petition for the resignation of Superintendent Carole Smith.
Rachel Brunette’s 7-year-old daughter attends Duniway Elementary, a school listed has having elevated lead at a cafeteria dishwashing station and at drinking fountains in the Willamette Week report.
She is getting her kids tested for lead poisoning this week.
“She’s been complaining of occasional stomach aches and headaches and it’s no big deal — but then you look on WebMD and it says these are possibly symptoms of exposure to lead,” Brunette said of her eldest. “Suddenly it doesn’t seem too benign anymore.”
In March, the district arranged to test for lead at Creston K-8 School and Rose City Park School at the request of parents who were concerned about the unfolding public health crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Those tests revealed elevated levels of lead in 14 of 92 water sources at the schools, including a handful of drinking fountains, but parents were not told for weeks.
“This is not our protocol, this is not acceptable, and we’re taking a number of immediate actions,” Smith told parents Tuesday.
The district placed plastic bags over all water fountains districtwide Friday and will spend the summer testing lead levels at all schools. The last time such extensive testing was done was 2001.
The district has purchased nearly 1 million bottles of water for students through the end of the school year.
Two district employees could be placed on administrative leave as a result of the investigation, Smith said.
District spokeswoman Christine Miles did not respond Wednesday to requests for further details.
In April, Gov. Kate Brown called for a statewide review of what tools schools and districts have to test water.
She directed the Oregon Health Authority, which carries out Environmental Protection Agency water regulations at the state level, and the Oregon Department of Education to also make recommendations for improvement.
Earlier this year, a Flint-inspired nationwide review by the USA Today Network found that more than 2,000 water systems fell short of EPA rules for lead,
It also found that the EPA has handed out 180 citations to officials nationwide for failing to immediately tell the public — as was the case at the two Portland schools — when high lead levels are discovered.
Americans will hear more about lead in public school water in the months to come as nervous districts test for it, said James Montgomery, an associate professor in environmental studies at DePaul University and an expert on lead in the environment.
Many schools have aging infrastructure, making them especially vulnerable, he said.
“Once Flint hit, my prediction was, ‘This is going to ripple like a seismic wave out,’ and it has,” he said.