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Thursday, November 9, 2006 - Page updated at 10:00 AM

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Above-normal levels of lead found in Seattle schools' water

Seattle Times staff reporters

Routine tests have found higher-than-normal levels of lead in the water in at least 35 Seattle public schools, the school district announced Wednesday.

More than 300 drinking fountains and sinks turned up lead levels above the district's standard in the September tests. The district tested fixtures at about 40 schools.

All the affected fixtures will be taped over and marked with warning signs, and the schools will be using bottled water until an investigation is complete, district officials said.

However, experts said the higher-than-normal levels should not cause parents to worry. "I would not be concerned that [the reported levels] would be a problem," said Dr. William Robertson, medical director of the Washington Poison Center. "I would tell them to keep on drinking the water."

School officials said they don't know how the lead got into the water. However, Ron English, the district's water program manager said the school levels may have been high because the water sat in the pipes too long before being tested. The samples were drawn last spring when the water had been off for four to seven weeks following arsenic tests.

The district is re-testing water from new samples at four of the schools to examine that theory. English said he expects new test results within a few weeks.

The pipes in most of the schools tested are fewer than 10 years old, and neither they nor the fixtures or solders are made of lead. The schools had tested within the allowable levels for lead in 2004.

In the latest tests, about 60 percent of the faucets and fountains exceeded the federal government's limit for lead in water, which is 20 parts per billion. The district's standard is 10 parts per billion, and one sink at Madrona K-8 had more than 90 times that standard.

The district has been coping with one water-quality problem after another since 2004, when it spent $13 million to replace pipes and install 1,000 new fixtures because of high levels of lead and iron.

The district now tests for lead, other metals and bacteria every three years, said English. Low levels of arsenic were found last spring in some of the new fixtures. District officials discovered some of the fixtures were improperly installed and created a chemical reaction that produced arsenic.

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Late last month, just two months after the water had been turned back on for the school year, the district again discovered lead in the sinks and water fountains during routine testing.

"It's like, "Again? More? This is a very difficult problem," said Ed Schwartz, an Alternative Elementary No. 2 parent who serves on the district's Water Quality Oversight Committee.

Thirty-six of the schools tested had faucets with higher-than-normal levels of lead, and a few came back below the standard, a district spokeswoman said.

One of the results — at African American Academy — may be incorrect because the district couldn't determine the source of the sample.

Robertson, from the poison center, said the lead levels reported would not likely endanger students.

He said the highest result in the district — 963 parts per billion at a sink at Madrona K-8 — is too high, but he doubted students could drink the more than one liter or so a day it would take to cause a problem.

A long-time toxicology expert, Robertson said the schools should consider giving blood tests to some students to determine how much they're actually exposed to lead.

The water lead levels "present a very small risk of elevated blood lead levels, and that's what translates to health risks," said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatric environmental-health expert at the University of Washington.

Sathyanarayana based her assessment on her recent study that predicted how the earlier Seattle school-water lead levels would project to blood lead levels in children ages 6 and 7. A full range of the lead levels was used. None of the projected blood levels was above 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends blood levels remain below 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.

Schwartz, the parent on the district's water panel, praised the district for its response and predicted the lead problem, like the arsenic problem, would blow over without public outrage because the district was taking it so seriously.

"I think the district is handling it very diligently. I think they have every intention of figuring out what the problem is and solving it," he said. "I think that the district is learning how to handle this kind of problem."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Warren King: 206-464-2247 or wking@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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