Lead: a Longstanding Issue at Wilson, but is the Problem Actually Solved?

The absence of water dispensers within Wilson has been felt by many. When the dispensers were unexpectedly removed at the beginning of this school year and green “safe to drink” stickers placed on running water fountains, students, faculty, and parents asked the same question: Is the water finally safe to drink?

The Earth20 water dispensers date back to 2016 when over 2,500 drinking water and kitchen fixtures within the PPS district were shut down after testing revealed dangerously high levels of lead.

Now that some of Wilson’s drinking fountains have been reopened, the water dispensers have almost all but disappeared, leaving eight remaining throughout the school. According to Adam Napier, Wilson’s head custodian, “60% of [the drinking fountains] are operational which means that’s money we can save by pulling the dispensers out.”

The water dispensers have been a substantial economic burden on the district budget with an average cost of $600 thousand per year. During the peak year in 2017, over $1 million was spent on the dispensers according to John Burnham, senior director of health and safety at PPS.

“The district superintendents were notified that we were going to give enough bottled water to replace all of the common area fixtures,” Dr. Burnham said. This meant that for every water fountain out of use, a water dispenser was proposed to replace it to ensure that students were still being offered the same amount of water as before the lead crisis of 2016. 

Yet, the number of non-functional water fountains compared to water dispensers available are not equivalent. As stated in the PPS Earth20 Water Station Summary Report, which was released in August of 2019, Wilson has a total of 56 water fixtures. 34 of them were recently reopened, which leaves 22 still shut down. According to this report, Wilson had a surplus of water dispensers. “You actually had access to 30 back then so what happened apparently out there is that it looks like about 8 of the dispensers would have been removed. They would have left you with 22,” Dr. Burnham said.

Upon hearing that the current number of water dispensers at Wilson was much lower than 22, Dr. Burnham said, “That wasn’t what was supposed to happen. If that’s the case, we have a breakdown in communication.” He explained that there was an email sent out by the “chief operating officer [that] was actually put together with the head of custodians, and he would have shared this with all of the custodians.”

The district head custodian, Frank Leavitt, did discuss the current number of water fountains and dispensers with Napier during a walk-through of Wilson in September. Leavitt marked all of the Earth20 water dispensers at Wilson on his map of the school. The number of dispensers present at this time was 14 (less than half of what was said to be present in the PPS Earth20 Water Station Summary Report).  According to Napier, “[Leavitt] was actually only going to allow two drinking dispensers to be left in the building, and I’ve allowed more than that because I know what the needs are here in the building, but at some point they are all going to go.”

Leavitt was aware of the email sent out by the district about the one-to-one proposal stating that, “during the summer time and at the beginning of the school year the district [began] removing excess bottled water because it is taxpayer dollars that are going to drinking water while there is fresh drinking water available, so it was our goal to remove unnecessary drinking water.” This reveals a discrepancy of what constitutes “excess” drinking water at the district level.

Since every school in the PPS district is different, Leavitt feels that it is important to come to a “happy medium” between the district and schools needs. This is why he and Napier walked through the school together and it was determined that two water dispensers was all that was necessary. “What I have come to find out from Adam [Napier] is that due to backlash, he has actually put more back out. There’s actually five out despite the fact that we really agreed on two,” Leavitt said. According to Napier, that number is actually eight.

Leavitt has found that students and faculty in PPS have become very accustomed to using bottled water dispensers and said “they will go to great lengths to keep [water dispensers] in places that they don’t really need them because people, just for some reason, don’t want to drink out of drinking fountains. That just doesn’t seem like a very good use of district funds.”

Leavitt also feels that the district is actively trying to make sure that enough “fresh drinking water” is provided for their schools. He said if there is an issue that they are “more than happy to talk about it and re-evaluate the situation.”

Since, according to PPS’s own proposed guidelines, there are insufficient water dispensers at Wilson, many students and faculty have resumed drinking the water from the fountains which were shut down in 2016 after the district acknowledged dangerous levels of lead. This comes with the assurance, from green “safe to drink” stickers, that the longstanding issue has been solved and the water is finally safe to drink. But is this really true?

Many students and faculty may be wary of trusting the fountains, since they had been drinking water with dangerous levels of lead for years before the information was shared with the public. The first district-wide water testing discovered lead in the water in 2001. In response, lead filters were installed to try to combat the problem. The big issue, Dr. Burnham said, was that they “apparently were not being maintained very well back when they installed them, and that was like years ago, almost 20 years ago, so that was a problem.”

Dr. Burnham agrees that “the ball was dropped back then in 2016. Some very poor communication was occurring, and [the district] also [was] delayed at shutting off water fountains that they found had lead in [them].” Once this information was made known to the public in 2016, the water fountains were shut down until the beginning of this school year.

The principal of Wilson, Filip Hristic, is one of the people wary of the news that the fountains have begun to be reopened. “We can’t make the same mistake twice. Perhaps once, and even then it’s inexcusable, but it would be beyond inexcusable to try to do that twice,” he said in the hopes that this time the water is truly safe to drink.

What the “safe to drink” stickers don’t reveal is that those drinking from the reopened water fountains are still being exposed to varying levels of lead every day. While the 34 fountains that have been reopened at Wilson are below the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb), scientifically, there is still no identified level of lead that is safe for human consumption.

Bruce Lanphear, MD, MPH, is a professor at Simon Fraser University and the principal investigator on a study looking deeper into the adverse effects of environmental neurotoxins such as lead, and how exposure to them can detrimentally affect children as they grow.

According to Lanphear, “The EPA itself has said that that the 15 parts per billion is not protective of human health, and it was never intended to be a health-based standard. It was used more as an administrative standard to try to address the most severe exposures.” While the EPA’s health-based standard is 15 ppb, their maximum contaminant level goal is placed at zero.

Rules pertaining to lead are gradually being implemented in Oregon schools. In January of 2019, Oregon passed a statute stating that water in schools is required to be tested every six years. Prior to January of this year, “there were no rules about lead in the water,” Dr. Burnham said.

Although the reopened Wilson water fountains are below the EPA’s action level, there are still varying levels of lead in every running water fountain at Wilson ranging from below 1 ppb to as high as 14.6 ppb according to the 2018/2019 Wilson Lead Water Sampling Results.

When testing school water fixtures for lead, samples are to be collected after the water sits overnight in the pipes, without any usage, to represent the worst-case scenario according to the Oregon Health Authority. Once the fountains have been used, lead levels drop because the water itself is not exposed to the lead in the plumbing fixtures for as much time. According to Dr. Burnham, the PPS district does take the initial worst-case scenario sample although the testing results published on the PPS website are those of the initial flush sample. This sampling occurs when letting the water run for thirty seconds before taking the sample.

With a child enrolled within the PPS district, Dr. Hristic is one of the many PPS parents that are concerned about the safety of the water. When asked about how he felt about his child drinking potentially unsafe water he said, “That’s where my mind went right away. If the district says that 15 parts per billion was appropriate but there’s other resources that says that that’s way too high, as a parent I would be very concerned. Whether it’s our Wilson students or my own kids, it gives me concern. We need to make sure. I mean safety and health is our number one responsibility.”

Wilson was founded in 1956, which means that the pipes within the school are about 63 years old. Behind the walls, there is a large pipe called a header pipe which connects to the lateral lines feeding into all water fountains, kitchen fixtures, and sinks at Wilson. Since water is acidic, it corrodes the lead in the old pipelines at schools like Wilson, which is one way that lead can end up getting into the drinking water. Schools like Wilson also have “lead solder where the soldered joints [and] the pipes themselves have a small amount of lead. There was also lead in the fixtures, many of which the district replaced,” Dr. Burnham said.

Lead is classified as a toxic metal and can be harmful to humans even at low exposure levels. When ingested, lead first gets absorbed into the blood and then travels to the bones as well as other tissues including the liver, kidneys, lungs, brain, spleen, muscles, and heart. When absorbed, lead is taken in by the same mechanisms by which people absorb iron and calcium. The toxic element mimics calcium which can lead to the death of neurons and other brain cells.

Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning because they absorb four-to-five times as much ingested lead as adults. Children with blood lead levels as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) have exhibited IQ deficits and increased risk for persistent behavioral effects such as conduct disorder and ADHD according to the Oregon Health Authority.

Lead ingestion poses dangers to adults as well. Blood lead levels ranging from 10 μg/dL and above in adults are associated with cardiovascular effects, decreased kidney function, nerve disorders, hypertension, and fertility problems according to the US National Library of Medicine.

In 2016, a little over 3% of the students and faculty of PPS participated in a blood lab study. The test results found that about 1% of the 1,900 people tested had elevated lead levels in their blood with none of the results tracing back to PPS. Although, when explaining this testing, Dr Burnham said “that is not a justification for having lead in our water, that’s just the fact. I want to get it lower.”

Although the Blood Lead Level is the most commonly used measure of lead exposure, it is hard to detect lead poisoning in the blood. Signs and symptoms typically don’t appear in the blood stream until dangerous amounts have accumulated. The blood generally carries only a small fraction of total lead burden. Most lead accumulates in bones and tissues. In fact, bones and teeth of adults contain more than 95% of total lead in the body according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It can also be difficult to detect lead in the blood because blood tests typically detect lead in blood for only about three months after exposure according to Multnomah County Health.

While the water fountains below the action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) are currently up and running, Mike Williams, PPS construction manager on the water program, said, “the 15 parts per billion isn’t even a health-based standard, so it’s not even determining a safe level, it’s an action level, and that’s part of what prompts us to think that it may not be good enough and look for other solutions.”

While looking for these other solutions, it seems that the issue of money is a driving factor in determining the district’s options. A 2017 bond provided the district with $28.5 million to approach the lead-in-water problem. This is a fraction of the estimated $107 million that it would cost to gut and replace all of the pipes in PPS.

According to Dr. Burnham, “Currently, the main priorities are to put back into service as many of the drinking fixtures as is feasible right now without spending a huge amount of money.”

The district board originally agreed on a proposal to use the $28.5 million for a partial pipe replacement. However, there have been many challenges with this proposal. Doing a partial or complete pipe replacement does not occur overnight. The disruption of the school environment is one factor that the district has taken into account while considering feasible solutions. It’s also very hard to tell how far back to gut and replace the piping until all of the lead is gone. “You may wind up spending $100,000 to replace some pipe in just one fixture, and you wind up not having lowered the lead a whole lot because you don’t know exactly where the lead is behind the wall,” Dr. Burnham said. With a limited budget, this is a risk that the district is reluctant to entertain.

 “You can see it’s kind of complicated, but really it’s all about money and time and the amount of disruption in our schools,” Dr. Burnham said.

These “other solutions,” such as a district pilot program, look to install drinking water stations equipped with filters. According to the PPS website, “This approach could substantially reduce the number of drinking fixtures in each school while potentially reducing the lead levels to below one ppb.” However, while these “other solutions” are being tested in six schools throughout the district, students at all of the remaining schools in PPS are still regularly drinking water with lead levels that may be as high as the 14.6 ppb found at Wilson.

While the district isn’t happy with the current state of the drinking water in PPS, every day, students and faculty drink water with lead in it. With low funding, the district is under pressure to stretch the money as far as possible and make compromises on safety and the amount of water that can be provided in PPS schools.

“I don’t think that 15 [ppb] is good. I think that if that’s all that’s practical that can be done with the economics that’s available in our public schools throughout the whole country, I guess we’re going to have to live with that,” Dr. Burhnam said. 

Although everyone’s goal is for sufficient and safe water, it still may be a long time until PPS is actually able to provide it to all of the students and staff.

Words and photos by Shandra Back