Report suggests lead in drinking water at unsafe levels in most state public schools

TACOMA, Wash. – A startling new report about lead levels in school drinking water is getting the attention of parents, educators and lawmakers tonight.

The watchdog group Environment Washington analyzed data from water quality tests performed at schools across the state. The department of health tested more than 8,500 fixtures and found 60-percent had lead levels of at least one-parts-per-billion.

The report highlighted test results as high as 269-parts-per-billion at an elementary school in Auburn, and 200-parts per billion at a school in Spokane County.

To put that in perspective, for public drinking water the environmental protection agency recommends action be taken when lead levels reach 15-parts-per-billion.

The state passed funding for lead testing in public schools back in 2017 after two schools in the Tacoma School District showed alarming lead levels.

“I mean it’s no different than Flint,” said Tacoma schools mom Jennifer Klapech. “I mean, everybody needs safe water, don’t we?”

Klapech has a special needs student and she remembers the 2016 lead crisis that rocked the south sound district.

“If we’re calling emergencies for snow, I think we can call emergencies for drinking water and get the funding to get it taken care of,” she said.

“From our experience in 2016 we knew we had to put a better system in place,” said TPS spokesperson Dan Voelpel. “So, we did that.”

Nearly three years ago, the Tacoma Public School district made national headlines after unsafe levels of lead were found in multiple buildings across the city. District officials say they fired one employee for failing to test water and since then have revamped lead testing protocols. The district says it replaced more than 600 fixtures that tested above 15 parts per billion of lead to water since the 2016 scare. Today, the district says water quality testing happens more often now than ever.

“Every fixture in the district gets tested every three years,” said Voelpel.

“We’ve banned lead in paint and gasoline in 1970’s,” said Bruce Speight from Environment Washington. “We’ve known for decades this is a problem and so really there’s no level that’s safe for our kids.”

Speight says state health department records revealed more than 60 percent of taps across the state showed school water fixtures with lead at levels of one-parts-per-billion or more – a level the group says pediatricians warn is dangerous for kids.

“We have been so slow to act on lead in drinking water when for decades we’ve known this is dangerous for our kids and we’ve got it out in other common sources of lead exposure,” said Speight, “But we haven’t acted on drinking water.”

Speight says the state action level is set at 20-parts-per-billion, Tacoma Schools says it replaces fixtures and uses other mitigation techniques for water that tests at 15-parts-per-billion or more – Environment Washington believes the threshold for safe drinking water should be much lower.

“This is a pervasive problem in Washington,” said Speight. “We now have evidence suggesting that and it’s critical the state act to protect our kids from lead tainted infrastructure.”

According to Environment Washington, the Seattle School District has imposed its own action level of 10-parts-per-billion lead to water. Plus, in Washington D.C., public schools there have gone even lower and set its own action level standard at 5-parts-per-billion.