The Vermont Health Department's Ali Boren performing a lead test on a water sample taken from a childcare center
Tests mandated by a new Vermont law are revealing elevated lead levels at schools around the state. Eighty-three percent of facilities tested so far have had at least one tap above allowable levels, according to state data.
The latest water sources to be flagged were in Burlington's Integrated Arts Academy, an elementary school. Burlington superintendent of schools Yaw Obeng informed parents Thursday about the test results.
"We take our responsibility to provide a safe and healthy environment for the children and staff seriously," Obeng wrote in a letter to parents. Any tap that tested at or above four parts per billion was immediately taken out of service for drinking or cooking, the letter stated. "We are working on fixes to permanently lower levels of lead in the water," it continued.
The levels at Integrated Arts are over the standard but not by much, said David Grass, environmental health program manager at the Vermont Health Department. They would not make an "appreciable contribution" to lead poisoning in students, Grass said.
About 17 percent of Vermont schools have carried out required testing.
They have until December of 2020 to do so under Act 66, which was passed earlier this year. Most schools reporting results above the standard have been able to fix the problem relatively quickly by changing out fixtures, Grass said. A few have a more pervasive problem, he added.
Childcare operations also must conduct testing under the new law.
The overall results so far are on par with what the state expected, according to Grass. He said it was a relief to have a growing bank of data and a roadmap under the law to address the problem.
“We had no idea what the levels were before," Grass said.
The Vermont Health Department collaborated on pilot testing in 2017 and 2018 that showed elevated levels at a significant number of schools tested. Those results led to the new law. Its standard for action, four parts per billion, is relatively strict. The law mandates that schools notify parents about testing and elevated results.
Lead exposure can impair development and learning. And while the leading source of lead poisoning in Vermont children is paint, lead in pipes and plumbing fixtures can contribute to exposure, according to the Vermont Health Department.
Results posted online by the state showed elevated levels at multiple schools in Chittenden County, including in South Burlington and Winooski. In Burlington, Champlain School and C.P. Smith school also showed elevated results and have taken steps to remediate the problem, according to the website.
At the Integrated Arts Academy, a full report on the test results showed elevated readings in three classroom sinks, with readings of nine, six and four parts per billion.
The sinks have been marked with "do not drink" signs and the taps will be changed, said Russ Elek, district communications specialist, who shared the full results with Seven Days.
"We're doing everything that the state has asked us to do, and very quickly,” Elek said.
Grass said tests need to take place when facilities are under normal operation and that it would be impractical to test during the summer when few use the buildings.
Still he agreed with the sentiment that the program is overdue. "I agree that it's 2019 and our kids should not be drinking water with any lead in it. It would have been wonderful if this could have been addressed 20 or 30 years ago."