Putting the “Lead” in DC Education Leaders

With sad food options, neglected kitchens, and no viable, noncorporate, way to deliver food to its students, DCPS doesn’t appear to value the quality of what students put in their mouths during the school day.

Turns out, school food may not be the only consumable hazard for DC public school kids.

Back in the hazy days of March, during the council’s performance oversight hearing for the deputy mayor for education (DME) on March 2, councilmember David Grosso asked the DME about lead abatement efforts at public schools in the city, including in water and in paint. Lead is a known health hazard for all humans, most especially children.

The responses Grosso got–both in writing and at the hearing–were somewhat reassuring, if not precise. For instance, on page 26 of written responses to council questions, the DME wrote that “annual testing for lead in drinking water for SY16 is underway with 61 schools tested thus far. SY15 results are posted online and available through the DOEE Website. Lead risk assessments were completed in all pre-1978 school buildings in areas occupied and commonly used by children ages 6 and under during SY15. Lead stabilization work is in progress.”

A few weeks later, on March 22, Grosso asked the same question of DCPS COO Nathaniel Beers, during a council roundtable hearing on summer 2016 capital projects. When given the same vague answer (listen at 2:06 and following), Grosso noted that “my absolute fear is that we are going to have problems in our schools with lead exposure.”

Apparently, in the 20 days between those hearings, Grosso didn’t read the fine print.

That would be the fine print of the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) website the DME obliquely referenced in her written response, which has a report of the most recent testing of lead in water at DCPS schools. (You can obtain the report from the DOEE website here.) [Note 4/19/16: the latter website appears unavailable, but a cached version can be seen here.]

According to the report, which spans water testing regimes from 2013 through this year, some schools had detectable levels of lead in their water, some many times the federal action level of 15 parts per billions (ppb).

One recent standout was Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, where more than a quarter of the tested devices had high lead in water levels (including one with lead levels more than 20 times the federal limit). At Payne Elementary, one device registered an eye-popping lead level of 8600 ppb. In its most recent testing, from February 2015, four devices outside Coolidge High School’s auditorium registered lead levels exceeding the federal limit; they apparently got filters as a result, which are effective in removing lead from water.

That said, there were different failures listed at Coolidge when the school was tested in June 2014, including a device that then registered a level about five times more than the federal limit—and without a filter subsequently added.

Even among schools that registered 100% pass rates recently, levels of lead in water ranged from nearly undetectable to close to the federal limit (including a hallway device in Ketcham Elementary, a preK classroom device in Turner Elementary, and a trailer device at Lafayette Elementary). In those latter cases, no filters were installed.

Disturbingly, the same Turner classroom that showed a relatively high lead level in recent testing also registered a high lead level in 2013 such that a filter was installed. Subsequent testing in 2014 revealed high lead levels in the same classroom, resulting in another filter being installed.

(Hmm: Did anyone ever change the filter between tests? That kind of maintenance is a necessary corollary to testing for lead in water and ensuring it doesn’t persist. There is no note in the report.)

Interestingly, during the 2013 round of testing, when devices with over-the-top readings of lead were discovered filters were not the sole solution. In some cases, the entire device was replaced (which makes sense given that lead in water is related to the content of lead in devices dispensing the water).

Since 2013, however, the report doesn’t show device replacement as a remediation tool–just filters.

Moreover, the way in which the report highlights the percentage of passed samples mirrors the oddly reassuring and vague answers Grosso got. Pass percentages are relatively high even at schools with widespread detectable lead in water levels.

For instance, the 2015 results for Coolidge show an 89% pass rate–which obscures the fact that lead levels in the 11% of Coolidge’s failed samples ranged from 24 ppb to 180 ppb, averaging 75 ppb (or 5 times the federal limit).

The report also does not appear consistent from year to year in terms of what sources or devices are checked—nor exactly how different devices appear to pose different problems. For instance, I could not find the recently problematic Coolidge auditorium devices in earlier tests. Some of the earliest testing, moreover, had notes saying that science lab taps would not be used for drinking, suggesting that no remediation was really needed for those with higher lead levels (science labs at some middle schools, including Sousa, had routinely and relatively high water lead levels).

Age of the buildings or devices doesn’t appear to be the sole (or maybe any) factor: At Walker Jones, a school newly built in 2008, three water sources had high lead levels just six years later, in 2014, such that water filters were installed. When the school was again tested in April 2015, it had three (different) devices with elevated lead levels that also required filters. But unrenovated (and 80-some years old) Eliot-Hine Middle School had a 100% pass rate in 2015.

Perhaps the most disturbing quality of the report (and the lack of public comment on it by anyone in education circles) is that no protocol for testing for lead is clearly outlined. As a recent Post story noted, most water testing for lead in schools nationwide is entirely optional.

So, to the extent we even have testing in DCPS, we are lucky. Of course, this leaves out the public schools that nearly half DC kids attend–charters–which is a huge oversight, given that lead in DC school water is nothing new. In 2007, for instance, the city council heard testimony about high lead levels in water in some DCPS schools, including Watkins Elementary, where 77% of tested devices had high lead levels in 2006.

In the current report, however, Watkins appears to pass with flying colors.

So: Is that happy new pass rate a result of different testing protocols? Different test sensitivity? Filters being installed (and presumably changed often)? Or repeated flushing and retesting such that accumulated lead from water sitting over time in pipes with lead would be flushed out?

Not clear–and that’s not even getting into the hazards of lead in paint.

It’s going to be a long spring.

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