Tests Find Elevated Lead Levels At Five Schools, D.C. Council Told

By Theola Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007

D.C. public school officials detected elevated levels of lead in the drinking water at five schools tested between August 2006 and last month, according to information released at a council hearing yesterday.

The schools identified during the city's Department of the Environment oversight hearing were Bowen, Hearst, Kenilworth and Watkins elementary schools and Alice Deal Junior High School.

Watkins was tested last August, and 77 percent of the samples were over the allowable limit, according to information released by council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment.

Bowen and Hearst were tested in November, and 38 percent of the samples from Bowen and 30 percent of the samples from Hearst exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's permissible lead level. Tests last month at Deal and Kenilworth showed that 47 percent and 40 percent of the samples, respectively, were over the limit.

City officials said yesterday that they did not know enough about how the tests were conducted to conclude that the water was unsafe to drink and that they were concerned.

"We know from what we saw that we want some answers quite quickly," said Corey Boffo, interim director of the Department of the Environment. The city agency has no oversight over lead testing at schools, but Boffo said it plans to become involved.

Graham said he learned of the issue when he received an e-mail this month from the EPA. "I don't want to prejudge the situation, but it's been very hard getting information," he said. "This is about protecting a vulnerable age group."

According to e-mails school officials sent to Graham's office yesterday, the tests were performed by contractors hired by the school system.

"A number of schools have been tested and remediation action performed," wrote Paul L. Taylor Jr., deputy director of facilities management for the school system. "We have recently identified funding to soon embark upon a comprehensive program that will test all outlets in all schools and remediate problems identified within one year. This program has been approved by the EPA."

An e-mail from Abdusalam Omer, the schools' chief business operation officer, promised a quicker response. "We need to make the testing of lead level a six month affair," Omer wrote to colleagues in the school system. "All of you need to put a sense of urgency into this serious issue."

In February 2004, seven D.C. public schools were found to have high levels of lead. The testing occurred a month after media reports disclosed excessive levels of lead in drinking water across the city. School officials determined that the problem was isolated to specific drinking fountains and not a contamination of the main water line connected to the schools. At the time, water was shut off to the problematic fixtures and school officials vowed to replace them with newer ones.

Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech, said yesterday that he has been studying school lead levels for nearly two years. He said he discovered the problem after studying test data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request of water samples in the schools.

Officials conducting tests for D.C. schools "did not follow standard protocols [in the tests]. They used methods to make the lead look low when it wasn't," Edwards said.

Test data in an August 2006 report provided by Edwards showed that 10 of 13 water fountains at Watkins contained elevated levels of lead. Still, in a second draw, three of the 13 samples were elevated. Edwards said the standard requires using results from the first draw.

Data from Kenilworth last month showed that six of 15 fountains had elevated lead levels. In a second draw, the number dropped to five. One fountain, in a kindergarten classroom, showed lead levels at 1,200 parts per billion on the second draw, Edwards said. "That is a hazardous level of lead," he said. EPA standards recommend school water fountains should be taken out of service if the lead level exceeds 20 parts per billion.

Last night, schools spokesman John C. White said that since September, all five schools except Deal have either replaced the water fountains or their filters.

"It's unconscionable that parents were not told and children were allowed to drink that water and this has gone on for years," Edwards said, adding that no one responded to his offer to conduct the water tests for free. "I suspect there are other schools with serious problems that they haven't sampled yet."

Staff writers V. Dion Haynes and Elissa Silverman contributed to this report.

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