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High Lead Levels in Drinking Water in Seattle Public Schools!

According to the February 3, 2019 issue of the Seattle Times, 53% of schools in South Seattle and 36% of North Seattle schools had high lead levels in water from classroom sinks and drinking faucets through early 2018. As of this summer, school district data still showed elevated lead levels in drinking fountains in at least 7 schools and Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center, home to high school and professional games. Lead levels at a drinking fountain in a locker room at Memorial Stadium were 17 parts per billion (ppb), 1.7 times the 10 parts per billion (ppb) lead concentration that the Seattle School District decided on in 2004 for its threshold.

by Sharon LaskaFebruary 28, 2019

On February 4, 2019, another article in the Seattle Times reported that WA State Rep. Gary Pollett introduced a bill to require the state to report to parents when lead levels reach >1 ppb and fix water outlets when lead is >5 ppb.
The Seattle Times agreed with Rep. Pollett in an editorial published February 5, 2019, urging House Bill 1860 be passed.1

The lead problem in schools is not just in Seattle. The problem is widespread.

Within Washington State, there have also been reports of high lead in drinking in Tacoma and Bellingham schools in the past 2 years. Nationwide there have been reports of high levels of lead in the water in schools in Ohio, California, Michigan, and Chicago.2

What can you do if your child goes to schools in the Seattle School District?

Growing children should be drinking water that has no more than 1 ppb lead, according to the Center for Disease Control. Since the Seattle School District only tests taps every 3 years, and has set an action threshold of 10 ppb, you really have no idea whether the taps at your child’s school are safe. You should consider providing water for your child from a source where lead has tested below 1 ppb.3

Could lead be in the drinking water in your home?

Since the Flint, Michigan water scare in 2016, concerned homeowners have wondered how to protect their families from high lead levels in their drinking water.  Between 2016 and 2018 there have been numerous reports of high lead levels in residential drinking water: from Tacoma, WA, Sebring, Ohio, Bellingham, WA, Los Angeles, CA, Boston, Mass,. Newark, NJ, New York City and Chicago, to name a few.

Why should you worry about lead?

Lead levels in drinking water should be taken seriously. The Environmental Protection Agency  (EPA) has set a maximum contaminant level goal  for lead in drinking water at zero, because lead is a toxic metal harmful to the nervous system and kidneys even at low exposure levels. Children younger than 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which severely affects mental and physical development.

How does lead get into your water?

Very little lead is found in lakes, rivers, or groundwater sources of public drinking water. Water utilities closely monitor lead levels in water leaving their water plants. More than 99% of all publicly supplied drinking water contains less than .005 parts of lead per million parts of water (ppm). But lead may enter the water in the miles of piles between the water plant and your home, or in supply lines between a water main and your home. And lead can be found in incoming pipes, leaded solder, and brass faucets in houses, apartment buildings, and public buildings, especially ones more than 20 years old.

The amount of lead in drinking water will be higher in communities with acidic water supplies. Acidic water makes it easier for lead in plumbing fittings and water pipes to dissolve and to enter the water we drink. Public water treatment systems are now required to use control measures to make water less acidic.

What does the EPA require of Water Utilities?

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) and the Lead and Copper Rule of 1991, the EPA set the action level for lead in drinking water at 15 parts per billion (ppb). This means utilities must ensure that water from a homeowner’s tap does not exceed this level in at least 90% of the homes sampled (90th percentile value). If water from the tap does exceed this limit, then the utility must take certain steps to correct the problem. In addition, they must educate consumers about the problem and take steps to correct lead in solder where the joints are under their control.4

What levels of lead in your water require some action?

Lead in water is measured in terms of parts per billion (ppb), literally floating particles of lead, detected in the water. Levels of lead less than 15 ppb require no action by the EPA or the local water’s  utility. If a test comes back with lead levels higher than 15 ppb, the EPA recommends that homeowners and municipalities take steps to reduce that level, such as updating pipes and putting anti-corrosive elements in the water.

Water districts do not test every home. Therefore, individual homeowners should have their water tested for lead, especially if they have older homes or younger children.

How do you know if your tap water is contaminated with lead?

The only way to know whether your tap water contains lead is to have it tested. You cannot see, taste, or smell lead in drinking water. Ask your water provider how to get your water tested.  They will arrange for sampling of your water tap and testing by a public or private laboratory.5

Why should you worry if there are safeguards provided by the EPA and your water utility?

  • The action limit of 15 ppb lead is just a guideline. “Zero” is the goal set by the EPA as being the safest. Less than 1 ppb is recommended for pregnant women and children.
  • Water utilities should be very diligent monitoring the acidity of the water leaving their plants. Acidic water is caustic and causes leaching of lead from pipes and solder joints. Water districts can counteract the acidity with chemicals before the water leaves the plant. But what if they are lax in doing so?
  • Even when utilities detect a high lead problem, it may take a long time before solutions are implemented and successful. The first widespread news reports about Flint, Michigan’s lead problem were published in early 2016. It was 1 ½ years later before Flint was able to reach the required goal of having 90% of the taps tested having less than 15 ppb lead. Would you want to be one of the up to 10% still waiting for safe water?

What can you do to protect your family from hidden contaminants in your water?

Water districts are faced with the impossible task of delivering clean, safe water after the water has gone through many miles of underground pipes before the water gets to your home. These underground water pipes are very difficult to inspect.  They may be old, leaky, and contaminated. Also, industrialization has made it more difficult to keep contaminants out of our water supply.6

Please consider a whole house water system with catalytic carbon filtration to help protect your family.

For more information about cleaner, safer water, go to the following site:

Sharon Laska

Sharon spent 15 years at University of Washington in Clinical Chemistry. She holds a BS in Biochemistry, MS in Chemistry, MBA, and has 34 years experience in Biotech and Pharmaceutical Companies.

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