GREENSBORO — Guilford County Schools leaders hope to announce soon a plan or proposal for more lead testing at the district’s drinking water taps, Chief of Staff Nora Carr said Thursday.
In the meantime, school maintenance staff have begun a new ritual: running all the drinking water faucets and fountains in almost every school for about a minute at the beginning of every school day. Staff began this procedure on Monday, the first day of classes for most schools.
Flushing gets rid of any water that sat in a faucet or other fixture overnight, lessening the opportunity for the water a child drinks to have picked up lead from the fixture.
The district is taking these steps out of “an abundance of caution,” Carr said Thursday in an interview. Research shows when lead builds up in young children, it can harm their intelligence, focus and behavior.
The school system last year tested for lead in one tap per building in 99 schools and 10 administrative buildings that are on a municipal water system. Three faucets showed lead near or above the EPA’s action level of 20 parts per billion. That’s the point at which the EPA recommends steps be taken to fix a problem. One tap, a faucet in a small, white sink in the kitchen of Southeast Guilford Middle, tested at 194 ppb. That’s nearly 10 times the EPA’s action level.
In each case, the faucets were the lead-leaching culprits, school leaders determined after checking lead levels in water before and after the faucet was flushed out. After replacing the faucets, lead levels dropped below what the labs testing Guilford’s samples could detect.
North Carolina does not require schools to test for lead in schools connected to municipal water sources, so these efforts are all voluntary.
Initially, school leaders released the results last month without announcing any plan for more testing or future action.
On Aug. 16, Chief Operations Officer Scott McCully told parents that the district had begun an inventory to better understand their plumbing starting with the three schools with the initially high lead results: Southeast Guilford Middle and Allen Jay and Frazier elementary schools. Carr said Thursday that the district had completed the inventory at those three schools.
She added that sometime in the last two to four weeks the district also started consulting with Christopher Morris Teaf, the director of the Center for Biomedical & Toxicological Research and Waste Management at Florida State University. He’s also president of a private research firm.
They are also still working closely with local water agencies and getting more help from state government and the schools’ local environmental attorney, she said.
District plumbing foreman Alvin Adams said the inventory of the three schools found some old water coolers they believe should have been disposed of decades ago based on potential for lead leaching from the components. Water coolers fall within the general category of drinking or water fountains, as most people understand the term, although plumbers differentiate. Adams and his staff have started on a project to replace those fountains, he said.
They are concerned schools may not have followed government requirements to get rid of models identified as potentially hazardous for lead. Congress passed a 1988 law aimed at ensuring the safety of school fountain drinking water that resulted in some product recalls in 1990.
Adams and other staff also used their experience and available records to estimate the age of the faucets in the schools. Leaders believe that knowing that could be useful to prioritizing where to focus future efforts. The three faucets where the district found the lead levels above the EPA action levels were from the 1970s or ‘80s, McCully said.
Inventory results show about 65 percent of fixtures are over 10 years old at Southeast Middle, 61 percent at Allen Jay and 59 percent at Frazier.
Faucets don’t really wear out like many other school components do, building services leaders said. So, just like a lot of people in their homes, the district has many faucets that date to when buildings were either constructed or renovated. They have never been under any obligation to replace them.
Just because a faucet is old doesn’t mean it’s going to have above average amounts of lead when tested, Adams stressed. Anti-corrosion treatments, such as the one Greensboro uses in its water, help keep fixtures and pipes coated with scale that provides a barrier between the lead and the water. Many old faucets did fine in the school district’s tests.
School leaders haven’t decided yet the scope of the testing or what other remediation steps they make take. That will help determine whether they need to ask the school board to authorize more money for the project. They hope to announce a plan or proposal within the next several weeks.