State survey finds traces of lead in Scottsdale schools

A view of lab testing. (photo by Scottsdale Water)

Through an initial 438 samples of neighborhood schools and facilities within the city of Scottsdale, 14 fixtures were found to have what officials describe as an “actionable level of lead in the water.”

In addition, two fixtures at a Scottsdale Unified School District school in the city of Phoenix — Hopi Elementary — had reportable results, according to SUSD officials.

Lead poisoning is dangerous for young children, ages six and younger, but drinking water is not a common source of lead in Arizona, officials at Arizona Department of Health Services say.

Following a second round of testing by Scottsdale Water of the identified sites, 53 fixtures were found to have an actionable level of lead in the water, between SUSD and Cave Creek Unified School District.

The water survey was initiated by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality in early 2017, to proactively conduct a six-month statewide screening program for the presence of lead in school drinking water.

“Lead contamination may be present in school drinking water even when the city’s water is in compliance with the federal lead Action Level of 15 parts of lead per billion parts of water (15 ppb),” Scottsdale Water Quality Director Suzanne Grendahl said in an email detailing the results.

“The water entering all these schools meets all water-quality standards and the increased level of lead is a result of internal pluming or plumbing fixtures.”

ADEQ made plans to sample 7,000 buildings at over 1,000 public schools in Arizona by June 30. Scottsdale Water volunteered to work with the schools and school districts to sample and analyze results for lead to help ADEQ fulfill its goal, Ms. Grendahl says.

The 15 ppb level is considered an “action level,” officials say. When action levels are found, this is a signal for a school to take steps to reduce lead in water.

“This level is not a measure of the lead present in the water during continued use throughout the day,” the emailed memo states. “This level was measured when water was sitting in the pipes for a period of several hours without being used in order to get an idea of what the highest level of lead in the water is likely to be.”

Three school districts reside within the city of Scottsdale: Scottsdale Schools, Paradise Valley and Cave Creek.

Scottsdale Water phase I results show:

  • Pima Elementary, sink: 17.5
  • Apache Yard, drinking fountain: 19.3
  • Chaparral High School, drinking fountain: 19.4
  • Cheyenne Elementary, sink: 20.0
  • Cheyenne Elementary, sink: 21.1
  • Cheyenne Elementary, sink: 21.2
  • Desert Mountain High, sink: 35.2
  • Hohokam Elementary, sink: 46.4
  • Navajo Elementary, sink: 55.6
  • Tonalea K-8, sink: 731.0
  • CCUSD district office, sink: 16.3
  • Desert Arroyo Middle, drinking fountain: 17.3
  • Desert Arroyo Middle, sink: 104.0
  • Black Mountain Elementary, sink: 17.8

Results by ADEQ for schools within the city of Phoenix showed Hopi Elementary had two sinks that resulted in 25 ppb and 31 ppb, SUSD Public Information Officer Erin Helm says.

“Every time we got the result we had principals send a letter to parents to let them know, and to tell them what’s been done,” Ms. Helm said in a June 19 interview.

“The actions we took were the same in every case, which were secure it, remove and replace and find out what the next steps are from ADEQ.”

A handful of schools in the city of Scottsdale were found to have action-level lead in the water. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Comprehensive testing

In Phase I of this project local staff took hundreds of initial samples this past spring, with all of the actionable results being sampled between March 1 and March 27.

It included collecting samples from each school building, according to Scottsdale Water Public Information Officer Nicole Sherbert. Buildings built in or before 1986 required two samples from fountains or sinks per building. Any buildings build in or after 1987, required one sample.

If the campus had food prep sinks, nurse offices and onsite daycare facilities, additional samples were taken, Ms. Sherbert said.

Phase II, occurring in April, consisted of taking confirmation samples at each of the locations that yielded an action-level ppb. Also, all remaining fountains and sinks within the buildings have been sampled, resulting in an additional 150-230 samples.

Results from Phase II yielded 53 fixtures with actionable levels, said Ms. Grendahl in a June 21 phone interview.

SUSD fixtures are at: Cheyenne Elementary, Desert Mountain High School, Pima Elementary, Tonalea K-8, Apache Yard, Navajo Middle, Chaparral High; and Black Mountain and Desert Arrayo in CCUSD.

“The reality is 14 for Phase I, and 53 for Phase II,” she said. “So 53 would include the original 14, plus any fixtures not tested so it’s not surprising a building that was built in a specific time and specific way would have similar results.”

Most of Phase II’s results show lead levels ranging between 15 and 200 ppb. Results of note include an Apache Yard sink with a ppb level of 1,200; and two Apache Yard sinks with ppb levels of 964 and 1,380.

Ms. Grendahl says her office is responsible for determining regulations, and remedies are left up to the site.

“What each school will do is up to the school and facilities board,” she explained. “We’re just here to help facilitate and to show everything is fine or not fine.”

As soon as next week, Scottsdale Water will be announcing a voluntary service of water testing for charter and private schools and licensed day care centers, Ms. Grendahl said.

“We just thought this shouldn’t be limited to public schools, and we have already done testing at city parks where they have children’s programs,” the water director said. “We’re just trying to be as comprehensive as possible.”

Schools’ immediate response

Cave Creek Unified School District Superintendent, Dr. Debbi Burdick, says their original results came back in April, and they promptly began to remedy the issues.

Dr. Debbi Burdick

“We immediately shut off the water to those sinks and asked for retesting,” Dr. Burdick said in an April 21 emailed response to questions. “At the one school with a high level PPB sink in a storage area, the principal included the results in his newsletter to inform parents.”

Dr. Burdick says the areas with high results were mostly in unused areas.

“All of the high PPB results came back in sinks in either unused storage areas or one in our Governing Boardroom bathroom,” she said. “Everyone wants clean, safe water for their students, staff and community in their facilities. Safety is a ‘No. 1’ priority in CCUSD.”

Scottsdale Unified School District followed a similar approach, issuing letters home to parents detailing the results and steps being taken to remedy the problem.

“First, we secured the drinking fountain with elevated lead levels so it cannot be used,” a letter penned by Chaparral Principal Gayle Holland states. “Next, we will remove and replace the fountain. Moving forward, we will work with ADEQ to determine any further action to ensure drinking water safety.”

Principal Holland’s letter is pretty similar to the other schools letters home, Ms. Helm said, also noting the district hasn’t been given results for the schools located within the Town of Paradise Valley, Cherokee Elementary and Kiva Elementary.

In the case of Tonalea K-8’s sink that resulted in 731 ppb, the sink is believed to be out of use, Ms. Helm said.

“To my understanding the next step is to make sure it’s not something with the main plumbing to the school,” Ms. Helm said.

Lead poisoning symptoms

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and Arizona Department of Health Services both detail action-level lead found in water is not life-threatening.

ADEQ guidelines state 15 ppb is a signal for a school to take steps to reduce lead in water. Additionally, the levels measured is not representative of lead present in water during continued use throughout the school day.

“The level was measured when water was sitting in the pipes for a period of several hours without being used in order to get an idea of what the highest level of lead in the water is likely to be,” Ms. Grendahl’s emailed memo states.

Arizona Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ sent out a memo to school administrators issuing FAQ’s for parents and school staff.

“We want to assure you that the school’s water is safe for handwashing, cleaning and toilet use,” the prepared statement says. “Moreover, drinking water is not a common source of lead poisoning in Arizona. The drinking water at your school is not likely to cause lead poisoning in your students and staff due to the limited amount of water the individuals are likely to drink from school water resources each day.”

ADHS’s top things to know about elevated lead levels include:

  • Lead detected in water sources at a school is not likely to be primary cause of lead poisoning;
  • Lead found in water at school is not likely to have come from the water itself;
  • Drinking water is not a common source of lead in Arizona;
  • Blood lead levels can decrease over time if an individual is no longer exposed to lead.
  • Primary health concerns related with lead poisoning are slowed development, reading and other learning problems, and brain, liver and kidney damage.

“Most children with lead poisoning look healthy and show no signs of illness,” ADHS press release states. “The only way to detect lead poisoning is by asking your doctor to perform a simple blood test. This is not recommended solely based on elevated levels of lead found in your school’s water.”

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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