First Wave Of School Water Results Show Traces Of Lead, As Testing Continues

Feb 7, 2018

In November, the Department of Health announced that it was going to test 16 of the older schools around Vermont that get water from municipal sources to see if the pipes and fixtures in those buildings were leaching lead into the water. So far, they have detected unsafe levels of lead in some of the school buildings' water.

As the results are starting to come in, Department of Environmental Conservation Drinking Water Compliance Chief Ben Montross says the tests give the state an idea of how wide spread the problem is:

"We just didn't know what was out there," Montross said. "It's really just investigatory to see what's out there, and see what we're dealing with, and then try to steer potentially a statewide approach, or just advice, to schools in the future."

Lead poisoning is especially dangerous to children.

Exposure to lead can damage the brain, kidneys and nervous system, and it can slow down growth and development  and make it hard to learn.

In 2016, more than 600 Vermont children under the age of six were found to have lead poisoning, according to the health department. Children are typically exposed to lead from old paint.

And while Vermont has done a lot to try reduce exposure, Montross says schools that have their own wells are required to test their water, schools that use public water supplies do not routinely test the water inside the buildings.

Academy School principal Andy Paciulli points to one of the fixtures that was replaced after state tests discovered lead was leaching into the water.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR File

"The reaction happens when the water comes through the pipes," Montross says. "If the school was built before 1986 the lead standards were different then. So right off the bat we see newer schools typically don't have the issue. But if there's  a school that has  the old wing built in the '50s, '60s, '70s, and the new wing built in the '90s-2000s, you can likely see difference in those results."

And the results, even among the 16 schools, have been varied.

The state tested 14 schools so far, and the results are available from eight:

[click on a school's name to read their initiative test results.]

"The only way to know if there is lead in your drinking water is to test. There is no safe level of lead in the body, so wherever we can work to reduce lead levels, we should do that." — Michelle Thompson, Department of Health

The EPA sets its health advisory level at 15 parts per billion, while Vermont says drinking water shouldn't have anymore than 1 part per billion.

Instead of testing a handful of taps at a lot of schools, the health department chose a group of schools, and tested every single water source at each school.

  • At Central Elementary School in Bellows Falls just about all of the taps were at or below a detectable level.
  • At Castelton Elementray School, several of the taps and fountains were above state, and federal, safe drinking water standards.
  • At Academy School in Brattleboro one of the older taps in the school measured one of the highest levels in the state.

Academy School principal Andy Paciulli says all of the taps that registered high levels of lead have been removed.

"We removed all of the fixtures as soon as we got the results," Paciulli said. "We are the guardians here of 370 kids, five days a week. So it's our job to take care of them any way we can."

Vermont Department of Health public health hygienist Michelle Thompson says in many of the cases it's relatively easy and inexpensive to change out older faucets, or just make sure the water is turned on for a few seconds every morning.

And she says the state is encouraging other schools to test their water.

"The only way to know if there is lead in your drinking water is to test," Thompson says. "We know that lead is an issue. We know that it has harmful health effects. There is no safe level of lead in the body, so wherever we can work to reduce lead levels, we should do that. And so through this project, that's a big aim."

Grady Smith, left, with his son, Wilder, outside Academy School. Smith says he was concerned when he learned that lead was detected in the school water.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Grady Smith has two children at Academy School in Brattleboro, and says the school has done a good job letting parents know about the testing, and about the subsequent results.

"I wasn't too concerned because I didn't think it was going to be an issue here," says Smith. "And then when I did hear that it was I was a little concerned. But it goes to show that anywhere where the infrastructure is not up to par, there can be detrimental conditions."

The state expects to finish testing at the last two schools this month and have all of its results back sometime in March.

The health department will then issue a report with recommendations for possible further statewide actions.

More state resources on lead in schools are available here.