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State report: Lead elevated in at least one fixture in 84% of tested Hampshire County schools

  • JERREY ROBERTSChildren board buses in September at Wildwood School in Amherst.

  • Pouring water into glass on a blue background Hyrma



@JackSuntrup
Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The state has completed a first-round probe into lead and copper levels in school water sources, and found 21 out of 25 participating Hampshire County schools have high levels of lead in at least one fixture.

The voluntary program, coordinated by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, took water samples from 818 schools in 153 communities between April 2016 and February 2017.

Schools were flagged when at least one fixture surpassed federal “action levels,” which are 15 parts per billion for lead and 1.3 parts per million for copper. Statewide, 72 percent of school buildings had at least one fixture that tested high for lead or copper, according to the report.

Gov. Charlie Baker, in a news release, hailed the program as the “first in the nation” and said the state will “continue to provide valuable assistance to our communities and will raise awareness about the need to test water on a regular basis.”

In Hampshire County, a striking finding was in Ware, where testing showed 63 out of 217 district water fixtures — or 29 percent — had elevated levels of lead, said Chris Dymon, director of buildings and grounds in Ware. Nearly 40 percent of fixtures in the district’s elementary school tested high for lead.

When asked how so many problems were detected, he said to keep in mind the age of the elementary school and middle school, which he said were built in 1971 and 1960, respectively.

In addition to Ware, the Amherst-Pelham and Belchertown districts had at least one fixture in each school that tested high for lead.

Fixtures in three schools tested high for both lead and copper in Hampshire County: William E. Norris Elementary in Southampton, and Chestnut Hill Community School and Jabish Middle School in Belchertown.

Qualifying factors

Research shows exposure to lead can have negative neurological impacts on children, infants and fetuses, and though copper is an essential nutrient for humans in trace amounts, high exposure can cause nausea, vomiting and other stomach problems, according to the report.

Still, officials stressed that faucets left running for 30 seconds are less likely to show elevated lead or copper levels. Samples taken of water that remained in pipes overnight are more likely to show high levels of the contaminants.

The report also notes that water fountains, water bottle filling stations, nurse’s sinks and bathroom sinks were all less likely to have high levels than kitchen kettles and classroom sinks.

Districts and schools across Hampshire County have taken steps to correct the issues in recent months, replacing problem sinks and water fountains, instituting “flushing” procedures, and establishing their own testing practices.

About $2.1 million was used for the first round of testing, leaving $600,000 in leftover funds for a second round. Some districts submitted their own data to the state to be included in the final spreadsheet.

John Tobiason, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts and the lead principal investigator, estimated the money would be enough to test between 100 and 200 more schools.

*Some districts, including Northampton, already conduct their own testing regimens. Northampton conducted full comprehensive testing in 2005 by an independent laboratory, Howard Laboratories in Hatfield, and again in 2016 by the same company and prior to the state’s voluntary testing program. Between those years, the Northampton Department of Public Works conducted additional testing, according to school officials. 

Northampton’s comprehensive testing in 2016 involved taking 228 water samples for lead and copper: 64 fixtures at the high school, 38 at JFK Middle School, 36 at Jackson Street School, 26 at Leeds Elementary School, 34 at Ryan Road School, and 30 at Bridge Street School, according to data provided by the city.

The results found one bubbler at Ryan Road School and two sinks at Jackson Street School that surpassed federal action levels for lead. City officials said the three fixtures were removed or shut down and that additional testing is conducted every two years in collaboration with the DPW.   

Overall, Tobiason said the state testing program has offered information on the state of lead in drinking water, despite the program’s voluntary nature.

“If you know about it, then you can take some actions to do something about it,” he said.

District by district

Eighty-four percent of schools tested high for lead in Hampshire County, or 21 out of 25 schools. Three schools also tested high for copper.

The handful of schools that did not have any fixtures surpassing government “action levels” were Center, Maple and Pepin elementary schools in Easthampton, and R.H. Conwell School in Worthington.

Amherst-Pelham School District: All seven schools, which includes the South Amherst Campus, tested high for lead in at least one fixture, and none tested high for copper.

Belchertown: All five district schools tested high for lead, and two tested high for copper.

Easthampton: Two of five district schools tested high for lead, and none tested high for copper. White Brook Middle School and Easthampton High School both had high lead levels.

Ware: All three Ware schools — Stanley M Koziol Elementary School, Ware Middle School and Ware Junior/Senior High School — exceeded regulatory lead levels.

Hampshire Regional: Of schools tested, the William E Norris School in Southampton tested high for lead and copper. New Hingham Regional Elementary in Chesterfield, Westhampton Elementary School, and Hampshire Regional High in Westhampton tested high for lead.

More details

At Southampton’s William E. Norris School, Principal Aliza Pluta said a faucet in the fifth-grade science classroom was the only one to test high for lead, and it has been taken out of commission.

Several fixtures tested high for copper, she said, but after implementing a twice monthly flushing regimen, only one fixture, a utility sink in the art room, still tests above the action level. That sink is still in commission, but isn’t used for drinking, Pluta said.

In Easthampton, Dayle Doiron, director of business services for the district, said that out of 55 first-draw samples taken at the high school last fall, two faucets showed lead above the action level.

At the middle school, out of 69 samples taken, 10 fixtures showed elevated levels of lead — nine faucets and one drinking fountain.

The drinking fountain has been taken out of service, she said, and all affected faucets have been marked “hand wash only.”

The fountain in question, when tested in the past, did not show elevated levels of lead. Doiron said she did not know the date of the last test. The comprehensive state testing differed from the district’s previous regimen, which is done on a rotation.

“We saw it as an opportunity to get a baseline on all the buildings at a particular time,” Doiron said.

In Belchertown, where all five district schools showed elevated lead levels, and two showed elevated copper levels, Robert Lachance, director of buildings and grounds, said the district has set out to replace between 30 and 50 devices districtwide.

He said the district has replaced faucets, supply lines, bubblers and/or aerators in problem fixtures. In the latest round of testing only six devices notched results above regulatory thresholds — three faucets at Chestnut Hill, one faucet at Swift River and two outside bubblers at Jabish Middle School.

Within the next two weeks, the district is “hoping to be able to knock those off the list,” Lachance said.

In Amherst and Pelham, about 150 water fountains and faucets are being repaired or replaced.

In Ware, figures from the elementary school show 40 of 105 fixtures, or 38 percent, had elevated levels of lead.

At the high school, there were eight cases of elevated lead levels among 67 fixtures. At the middle school, there were 15 cases of elevated levels among 45 fixtures.

Dymon, the Ware buildings and grounds director, said he did not have a count on the amount of problem bubblers versus sinks, but said the district has set out to replace problem fixtures, start a flushing program, and has marked problem sinks as hand-wash only.

“We’re being as proactive as we can,” he said.

Jack Suntrup can be reached at jsuntrup@gazettenet.com.

*This story has been updated to include more details about Northampton’s water testing.