- Kevin Mccallum
- The Vermont Department of Health's Ali Boren performing a lead test on a water sample taken from a childcare center
State officials learned nearly a year ago that some Vermont schools had elevated levels of toxic lead in their drinking water. Results of a pilot study, released in September 2018, reported lead in each of the 16 schools sampled. Five of them, nearly a third, had levels exceeding federal standards.
Gov. Phil Scott and Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine promptly called for water testing at all schools. But by the time lawmakers acted in late May, school was nearly out. Only five additional buildings could be tested before summer break. And tests must be performed under normal use conditions — not in the middle of summer.
So, to date, just 21 of the state's 440 public and independent K-12 schools — 16 from the pilot and five in June — have been tested. The rest are to be tested this school year.
That means the vast majority of Vermont's 75,000 public school students begin returning this week to buildings where the water could be contaminated with unknown amounts of lead.
"We heard the classic refrain of 'Let's just slow down to get this right,'" Elena Mihaly, staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, said last week of the legislature's handling of the issue. "But here we are: Kids are going back to schools that haven't been tested, and based on the results that we have seen, it's highly likely that there is lead in the taps of many schools in Vermont."
Even once kids are back in class, it may be months before administrators know the results of the lead tests and take corrective action. Sampling will begin in earnest in late September.
Lead was widely used in pipes and plumbing fixtures installed through the 1980s, when it was banned because of health concerns. Many of those fixtures remain in use.
Officials believe the water systems supplying schools are safe but that the older fixtures can allow lead to leach into the water. Health officials expressed confidence that exposure for kids is occasional, which represents a very low risk to individuals.
"No, we are not Flint, Mich.," Levine said last week. "No, we are not Newark, N.J., where there are real systemic issues with regards to the entire water supply."
In the cases involving elevated lead readings, the fixtures in question have been turned off or removed, so children are no longer at risk of drinking lead-contaminated water from them.
And yet considerable disagreement and confusion lingers about what levels of lead in drinking water are safe. State and federal health officials stress that no level of exposure to lead — whether from drinking water, paint, dust or dirt — is safe for children.
Younger children are considered at greater risk for lead exposure because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to its damaging effects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA, however, allows water supplies, including those at schools, to contain up to 15 parts of lead per billion before requiring remediation. Vermont recently set a new standard of 4 ppb, one of the most stringent in the nation.
Of the tests that have been performed, some results have been substantially higher than both those levels.
A water fountain in the hallway outside the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in Richford Elementary School showed initial results of 109 ppb. A sink in room 202A of Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans had an initial lead concentration of 226 ppb. A drinking fountain in Barre Town Elementary School had a lead level of 871 ppb — more than 200 times the state limit.
In all of these cases, the results reflect so-called "first draw" tests, done when a fixture has not been used for at least eight hours and lead from pipes or fixtures has seeped into standing water. Follow-up tests, performed after the water flowed for at least 30 seconds, generally resulted in far lower levels. In most of those tests, lead was below the state's new 4 ppb standard.
Still, the initial results prompted Scott to expand the testing statewide. Given the cost, he waited for the legislature to convene in January.
Lawmakers took up the challenge right away, introducing a water-testing bill before the month was out. But the measure got bogged down as legislators came up to speed on the issue and debated acceptable exposure levels, sampling protocols, whether to include childcare centers in the mix and who should pay for it all.
Those details didn't get hammered out until the end of May. Scott signed the bill on June 17.
"The bottom line is, we were ready to roll in January, but we have to respect the legislative process, and the legislative process did take time," Levine said.
The delays have been frustrating but were largely unavoidable given the "near-total ignorance" in which officials found themselves on the issue, said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden).
"Having all tests in by the beginning of the school year would have been great, but in light of the fact we're starting from scratch, the testing will be done as fast as can practically be done," Ashe said.
Nevertheless, five schools from districts where contamination was discovered in 2018 were selected to run tests before kids headed home for the summer.
At Bellows Free Academy, principal Chris Mosca said he suspected the June tests might turn up lead, given that another school in the district, St. Albans City School, identified contamination in its taps. Bellows Free Academy is an even older structure, with a wing dating back to its time as a hospital circa 1899.
Even so, the test results were "alarming," Mosca said: "When we got the news, it was like, 'Holy smokes!'"
Tests showed that out of more than 300 taps in the schools, 34 — including water fountains, sinks and a gymnasium ice maker — had initial results higher than 4 ppb.
Figuring out how to address the problem, even with the guidance of state health officials, was daunting, Mosca said. Officials immediately informed the school community of the results and issued assurances that the taps involved would be removed, replaced or put off-limits, he said.
Legislators set aside $3 million to help school districts pay for testing and to replace lead fixtures.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Department of Health has spent recent weeks focusing on the 1,200 childcare centers also covered by the new testing rules. Since those centers don't go on summer hiatus, they could be tested through the season.
More than 1,500 samples from 311 childcare centers have been processed at the Department of Health laboratory in Colchester so far, and 12 percent of the facilities had at least one tap above the 4 ppb level. The goal is to complete tests at 800 centers by the end of September, when school samples should start streaming in.
"It's been a push, but it's important," said Stella Celotti, director of the lab, as she gave Seven Days a tour of the Colchester facility last week. "Children are vulnerable."
Carts full of hundreds of samples from daycare centers lined hallways, waiting to be analyzed by chemists operating the lab's two testing instruments, known as inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometers. The high-tech devices draw up, finely mist and superheat the samples, ionizing the lead atoms for precise detection.
The results are uploaded daily to a searchable public database. The lab has been handling the surge in testing work, but if it runs into capacity problems, it will contract with an outside lab to work under state direction, Celotti said. Officials considered outsourcing the work to speed things up, but Levine argued that keeping the testing program in-house would allow for greater control and ensure the work was done right.
Levine said he knows that may be cold comfort to parents faced with sending their kids back to schools yet to be tested, especially because his department has stressed that no level of lead is safe.
But the levels discovered in most schools make it unlikely children are drinking enough water contaminated with enough lead to result in high levels of lead in their blood, he said.
"If we thought there was an immediate threat to public health, that's a very different equation," he said.
If parents remain concerned, they can send their kids to school with bottled water. They can also use one of the many filtered-water bottle-filling stations in most schools.
The test results strongly suggest that older, rarely used fixtures with lead components are the main problem, meaning the fixes appear to be manageable, Levine said. Districts can be proactive and simply turn off seldom-used taps, he said.
While the delays have been frustrating, Levine said the testing program should reassure residents that the state has imposed strict health standards for lead and is working to help communities meet those standards.
"These are all good outcomes," Levine said. "It's just that here we are, and we're waiting for September to really get rolling."
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.