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Experts: Lead testing is no guarantee of safe water in schools

Flora Anthony assumed the drinking water at her son’s Atlanta elementary school was safe.

Then she learned water at Morningside Elementary School, originally built in 1930, had high lead levels, according to school district test results released this week. Morningside was one of 25 Atlanta schools with especially high lead levels in one or more water fountains or sinks tested.

Now she’s terrified—and angry.

“There are people who are supposed to be looking out for the safety and well-being of the children who go to the city schools,” she said. “It’s absolutely insane that they didn’t automatically test when they knew we had pipes that old.”

Even as other states have moved to require school drinking water be tested for lead, no law requires testing in Georgia schools or day care centers.

Atlanta Public Schools decided to test its water fountains and sinks this spring, after news of dangerously high lead levels in Flint, Michigan. No other metro Atlanta school district has tested school water system-wide or announced plans to do so.

Several local school districts said they rely on local water utilities to test drinking water. But those tests are conducted at various sites in the county or service area. They don’t measure the lead levels in water from the fountains or sinks inside schools.

Experts say even voluntary testing and repairs, like those under way in Atlanta, aren’t a guarantee the water students drink is safe.

“You can never say with certainty as long as you have lead plumbing the water is safe,” said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor who led research uncovering dangerous lead levels in drinking water in Flint and Washington, D.C.

Atlanta school superintendent Meria Carstarphen has repeatedly told parents that water fountains and sinks are “cleared” and safe to use if initial or follow-up tests show lead levels below 15 parts per billion. That’s the level above which water systems, such as Atlanta Watershed, are generally required to try to reduce lead in drinking water under federal law.

That kind of statement is “concerning,” Edwards said. There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that school water fountains not exceed lead concentrations of 1 part per billion. Even low levels of lead in children’s blood can result in behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, slowed growth and other problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Through a spokeswoman, Carstarphen declined requests to speak with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about lead test results.

Results depend heavily on how testing is conducted, Edwards said. How recently a tap was used or how quickly water flows during collection can mean the difference between a shockingly high lead level and a negative result. Atlanta Public Schools has not yet provided a description of the district’s testing methods requested by the AJC under the Georgia Open Records Act.

And a single test can’t prove that a water source is safe.

“I could go into the worst system in the country and test in a way that makes every tap look good,” Edwards said.

Results to date for Atlanta schools show levels above 15 parts per billion in one or more water fountains or sinks in 25 of 60 schools. In total, 39 of the 1,542 school water fountains and sinks tested had levels above 15 parts per billion.

Levels at several schools were as high were as 15 times the federal limit for water systems. High lead levels were also found at some administrative buildings.

Results from all 113 buildings tested are expected later this summer.

The school district is flushing water lines or making repairs at any water fountains or sinks where lead levels top 15 parts per billion and retesting them. District operations chief Larry Hoskins told the AJC last month the district would develop a plan for ongoing testing and repairs.

Flora Anthony took her son, who will return to Morningside as a first-grader next month, to get his lead levels tested. She’s waiting for results. Her whole family is drinking bottled water. And she plans to reach out to local and state officials.

“Why isn’t there a rule?” she asked.

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