Some metro Atlanta school districts yet to test for lead in water

As DeKalb Schools finish nearly a year of testing and retesting water sources in buildings to make sure lead levels are in line with federal standards, some school districts are slow to follow suit.

Citing a water crisis that affected schools in Flint, Mich., Atlanta Public Schools began testing water in its school buildings for lead in the spring of 2016. DeKalb announced a few months later it would test every water fountain and faucet in its 145 properties. Fulton County Schools began testing last fall, just after DeKalb. The results showed elevated lead in spots across both districts.

VIDEO: Previous coverage of this issue

Several metro Atlanta school districts have not tested for lead since those findings in Flint prompted testing by school districts around the country. Georgia does not require schools to test water for lead, though pending legislation would make it mandatory.

“The (United States Environmental Protection Agency) has language about testing. The fact that only a few have looked at this, I find that difficult to understand,” said Steve Reiber, a consultant with 40 years experience with corrosion control in water systems.

Clayton County Schools officials said Thursday via email that the district is in a bid process for a company to perform lead-in-water testing, with hopes to begin testing all its buildings in early 2018.

According to the EPA’s website, about 8,000 schools and day care facilities are regulated through the Safe Drinking Water Act, because they maintain their own water supply. About 98,000 schools and 500,000 day care facilities are not held to those same standards.

Former State Sen. Vincent Fort pushed legislation in the spring to require schools and day care centers to test their water, and said he felt the bill had effectively stalled in the House. Fort, who resigned to run for Atlanta mayor, won’t be back to pick up the effort in the reconvening session.

“The situation with APS showing lead in their water and some of the other research I saw, including some by the media, told me we had a real problem,” Fort said. “I thought there was great need to require school systems to do testing. Essentially, what the members of the House committee said is we really don’t want to know what’s in our water

“Essentially, we’re saying we’re good with … every school essentially being a Flint, Michigan.”

DeKalb County School District officials said this week that retesting is winding down after water testing found elevated lead in nearly half the district’s schools. Joshua Williams, the district’s chief operations officer, said lead was found in 142 water sources of the 4,582 sources tested, about 3 percent of the district’s water sources.

“The health and safety of all students and staff is the top priority for DeKalb County School District,” officials said Wednesday. “In accordance with the U.S. EPA’s guidance document 3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water In Schools, the district has evaluated and implemented remediation strategies for those source units where lead in drinking water concentrations have exceeded the U.S. EPA federal drinking water standard of 15 parts per billion.”

Fulton County Schools officials said elevated lead readings in the initial testing of buildings built before 1987 prompted the district to test all buildings. They discovered the elevated lead levels came mostly from components in brass fittings in fixtures. Those were replaced and retested.

Cobb County Schools spokesman John Stafford said water was tested last year at schools built before construction code requirements changed in 1988. He did not say what those results were.

When asked last year, district officials never said any testing took place.

Gwinnett County Schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach said spot testing took place after media reports of lead levels at other school districts, with no issues being found. The district has said previously that it doesn’t check water sources regularly, as pipes were replaced decades ago to remove any lead-based parts.

But lead has many different ways of getting into the water, Reiber said.

“You can have lead, in very minute amounts, from a variety of sources,” he said. “Water main, (pipe) joints, faucet materials, galvanized iron pipe. Flow dynamics, standing times also affect the numbers. The release of lead from the plumbing materials is not always straightforward.”

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