Elevated lead levels at three D.C. elementary schools have raised concerns among parents and city leaders, and city officials announced Thursday that they are working to arrange lead poisoning tests for students.
The water at the three schools — two in Northeast and one in Southeast D.C. — were tested in recent weeks, and city officials said all compromised water sources have been shut down.
High levels of lead are linked to brain damage and developmental problems, including impulsive behavior, poor language skills and trouble retaining new information.
Members of the D.C. Council scrutinized the issue at an education budget oversight hearing Thursday. The education committee’s chairman, council member David Grosso (I-At Large), pressed the Department of General Services (DGS) on why city schools, including newly renovated ones, were still showing concerning amounts of lead in their water. The DGS is responsible for lead testing in schools.
“What is going on there?” Grosso said. “You can’t tell me that a modernized school’s building will allow for pipes not to be remediated for lead. That’s outrageous.”
D.C. Public Schools and the Department of Energy and Environment are contacting parents at the affected schools to coordinate testing for potential lead poisoning. The three schools are Miner Elementary and Capitol Hill Montessori @ Logan, both in Northeast, and Payne Elementary in Southeast.
Kenneth Diggs, a DGS spokesman, said the agency tests all water fountains annually for possible lead contamination. If a lead level above acceptable limits is found, agency workers shut off the specific water supply, install a filter or replace the pipes, and then retest.
In 2015, the agency tested 3,400 water sources, and 17 of them did not meet standards, Diggs said. The Environmental Protection Agency calls for action when lead levels in schools are at or above 20 parts per billion (ppb) in a 250-milliliter bottle. D.C.’s threshold is a bit more conservative, at 15 ppb.
Grosso has asked the agency to test all water sources, including sinks and hoses, for lead.
“Where we need to improve is that we need to test every water source inside and outside the school,” Diggs said, adding that it would take about 90 days to complete the tests.
DGS officials met with parents at Capitol Hill Montessori @ Logan on Wednesday to discuss the elevated lead levels. The agency discovered traces of lead in the school’s water last year but did not relay this information to the school or parents, and just shut off the water source. A water source tested positive for elevated lead levels again this year.
“The lack of communication has really undermined the confidence of parents,” said council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). “We have got to give parents confidence that there is not lead in the water.”
The District has had problems with lead in the past. Virginia Tech engineering professor Marc Edwards helped reveal extraordinarily high lead levels in the city’s municipal water source in 2003 and 2004, and later in its public schools. He discovered through a Freedom of Information Act request that in one school, the water flowing out of a single tap had more than 7,500 ppb of lead.