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Arizona Tests for Lead in School Drinking Water Reveal Elevated Levels

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by Patrick J. Paul

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) announced at the end of January that it would commence a statewide screening program for the presence of lead in school drinking water. The agency declared that its initiative was intended to be proactive and ultimately to identify whether school drinking water contains lead at levels of concern for children’s health in order that impacted school districts could respond to any identified concerns.

In all, ADEQ anticipates a six-month screening program that would collect 14,000 drinking water samples from 7,000 school structures across the state. All testing is to be conducted without any cost to the individual schools or districts.  The agency also published an informational fact sheet designed to further inform the public about the sampling process.

No doubt motivated in part by the discovery of lead in drinking water in Flint Michigan and the corresponding national outcry, ADEQ has committed to provide all school samplers with a toolkit, collection containers and prepaid shipping boxes to facilitate the delivery of samples to contracted laboratories.  In making this announcement, the agency noted that lead contamination could in fact be present in school drinking water even if the school’s water provider was otherwise in compliance with the federal lead drinking water standard of 15 ppb. It further noted that school drinking water supplies could become contaminated with lead as water travels through a school’s plumbing system that might have lead-containing materials and fixtures like water fountains and faucets. While noting that the most commonly observed source of lead in Arizona includes NOT drinking water, but rather lead-based paint in older homes, certain household products, imported spices and candles, and lead glazed pottery used in cooking, it also noted that leaking water heaters could leach lead-containing materials into the water supply, particularly over weekends when schools are ordinarily closed or during extended school breaks throughout the year when water line usage is substantially lower. Although ADEQ does not consider drinking water to be a common source of lead in Arizona, it nevertheless agreed that eliminating exposure to lead in drinking water was an important step in reducing childhood exposure to it.

During the first phase of testing, drinking water samples taken at Killip Elementary School in the Flagstaff Unified School District detected elevated levels of lead. More particularly, in eight sample locations, one identified lead at 17 ppb. In responding to this result, ADEQ pointed again to the proactive nature of the sampling and to its goal of identifying whether school drinking water contains lead at levels of concern to the children.  School officials report purchasing every remaining water filter in Flagstaff, and to utilizing only bottled water until additional test samples following filter installation are concluded.

Given the early elevated detection, it will be curious to observe the results of continuing tests throughout the state to assess whether some predictable pattern exists and whether a common remedy may be implemented and at what cost.