WJCC, York schools ahead of new law mandating tests for lead in water

When word spread that an entire city was drinking lead-contaminated water, many people started wondering about their own health. Officials in Flint, Mich. acknowledged its lead problem in 2015 and the two years since have been marked by water safety regulations around the country.

"Honestly, with all of the issues related to Flint, we wanted to make sure that our water was safe," Williamsburg-James City County Schools spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said. "Because of that, we determined that we should just go ahead and test even though it wasn't required."

Now it's required by law.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed Senate Bill 1359 into law on March 20, mandating that school boards statewide develop a water-testing plan for any sources of potable water. The testing requirement goes into effect July 1.

According to the EPA, lead poisoning is more dangerous for children because their bodies absorb more of the toxins than adults. The website lists symptoms including behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, hearing problems and anemia.

But partly because of Flint, W-JCC and York County School Division officials decided to test drinking water in all schools in April 2016. All results met U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations for acceptable lead levels in water.

Overkamp-Smith said news of Flint spurred the internal decision. York County's was brought on by a parent, chief operations officer Carl James said.

"We had concern from a parent about lead, so we decided to test all schools given that parent's concern. Flint may be why the parent asked the question," James said. "Safety is a top priority, so given that if we have a concern about one (school), we're going to test all of them."

2016 test results

The new law calls for extra attention be paid to schools built before 1986 because of the likelihood they were built with lead pipes. As those pipes erode, more lead is carried away in the water.

W-JCC's Matthew Whaley, Norge and Laurel Lane elementary schools, Berkeley Middle School and Lafayette High School were built before then, as were Waller Mill Elementary, Queens Lake Middle and Bruton High School in York County.

Before the 2016 division-wide test, Overkamp-Smith said those six schools were periodically tested every five to 10 years. James said he didn't know of any routine tests happening in York County.

In 2016, samples were taken from multiple locations within each building in both divisions and sent to James R. Reed and Associates, a state certified lab, for testing.

The Virginia Department of Health follows the same lead-contamination guidelines as the EPA. Any water system with more than 15 parts per billion of lead must be treated.

Most W-JCC schools had less than 1 part per billion, according to the lab's test results provided by Overkamp-Smith. The two highest readings were 4 ppb from the kitchen sink at Warhill High and 3 ppb from a drinking fountain at Berkeley Middle.

Of the four York County schools close to Williamsburg — Magruder Elementary, Waller Mill, Queens Lake and Bruton High — the two highest readings came from Waller Mill and Bruton, which had 2 ppb of lead in the water, according to Associate Director of Maintenance Greg Dolak.

Both officials said their divisions are working on creating a plan for regular testing. James said he is hoping York County's is final by the start of school in September; Overkamp-Smith said W-JCC doesn't have a time frame.

Neither the VDOE memo nor the new law states when a testing plan has to be in place or how often boards need to test their water.

What is safe?

Although the levels are well below the EPA regulatory guidelines, organizations differ on what a safe level of lead is.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement June 20, 2016, calling for stricter regulations on lead contamination — including requiring all schools to have levels less than 1 ppb. The statement claimed no level of lead is safe for children.

Madeline Vann agrees. She has two children at James River Elementary and works as a freelance medical science writer. Calling the new law "a great step forward," Vann said the goal is to achieve zero lead exposure — whether via water or other sources such as lead paint or lead-contaminated soil.

"There are a couple issues in a school setting, it does affect cognitive development and could affect overall long-term growth (in children)," Vann said. "It can lead to miscarriage in pregnant women, and that's a real concern we don't always talk about."

"I do think it's important for parents to be aware and to be paying attention to the lead exposure that kids may have at home or in public water or bottled water," Vann said. "As a community, I think we need to be informed about the lead in the water and decide where we want to invest our tax dollars and our energy."

The new law calls for a remediation plan if lead contamination ever does exceed acceptable levels. Fixing the lead contamination could mean replacing pipes in schools or installing water filters and officials would have to provide another source of water — such as bottled — in the interim.

"Lead is an environmental hazard and exposure to it is preventable," Overkamp-Smith said. "We should do whatever we need to do to keep kids healthy in our schools."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

Levels of lead in school drinking water

Less than 1 part per billion: Clara Byrd Baker, D. J. Montague, James River, J. Blaine Blayton, Matthew Whaley, Norge, Laurel Lane (formerly Rawls Byrd) elementary schools and Hornsby and Toano middle schools in W-JCC; Magruder Elementary in York County.

1 part per billion: Matoaka Elementary, Jamestown High and Lafayette High in W-JCC; Queens Lake Middle in York County.

2 parts per billion: Stonehouse Elementary in W-JCC, Waller Mill Elementary and Bruton High in York County.

3 parts per billion: Berkeley Middle and W-JCC James Blair Central Office Annex.

4 parts per billion: Warhill High.

Schools built before 1986:

Matthew Whaley, Norge and Laurel Lane elementary schools in W-JCC; Waller Mill Elementary in York County.

Berkeley Middle in W-JCC and Queens Lake Middle in York County.

Lafayette High School in W-JCC and Bruton High School in York County.

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