Lead levels high at four schools

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Water testing throughout Columbus City Schools turned up troubling levels of lead in six buildings, including four occupied by students.

District officials said last month that it was providing bottled water at two of those schools: the Welcome Center at Linmoor, 2001 Hamilton Ave., and Olde Orchard Elementary School, 800 McNaughten Rd.

Students in those schools won't be allowed to use building drinking fountains "until water coolers can be replaced, the water retested, and we are assured there are no further concerns," Superintendent Gene Harris wrote in a letter sent to parents.

"Water at these two locations may still be used for restrooms, hand washing, and cleaning."

Parents of children at those schools said they appreciated the precaution.

"We want our kids to be safe at school," said Olympia Earnest, who has two kids at Olde Orchard.

"Water is essential. If nothing else, they need water."

As of last month, the district was not providing bottled water at the other two schools with suspicious l

lead levels: Cranbrook Elementary School, 908 Bricker Blvd., and East Columbus Elementary School, 3100 E 7th Ave.

The divergent approaches reflected the district's interpretation of what constitutes an unacceptable lead level in school water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency generally considers the safety threshold, or "action level," for school-system drinking water to be 15 parts per billion. That's the standard used for Ohio schools that handle their own water treatment and therefore are required to test their water regularly and send the results to the Ohio EPA.

Although the federal EPA encourages all schools to test their drinking water, Columbus and other Ohio school districts served by public water utilities don't have to do their own testing, because the water is checked by the utilities.

Columbus administrators decided in the spring to test each of the district's more than 120 buildings just to be safe.

When they revealed the results, Columbus officials cited a 1988 federal statute indicating that schools that rely on public water utilities don't have to take action unless the lead level in a particular drinking fountain exceeds 20 parts per billion.

The lead levels at Linmoor and Olde Orchard were 27.8 parts per billion and 25.3 parts per billion, respectively. Cranbrook had a lead level of 16.1 parts per billion, and East Columbus tested at 17 parts per billion.

Initially, the Ohio EPA and the Ohio Department of Health said Columbus schools had to adhere to the 15-parts-per-billion standard. Before long, however, the Ohio EPA had backed away from that assessment and concluded that Columbus officials were correct.

Jeff Warner, a spokesman for Columbus schools, said the district will flush and monitor the drinking fountains at Cranbrook and East Columbus and, in the near future, retest all four schools.

Lead in water usually can be traced to lead pipes, lead solder used to connect pipes or brass fixtures that contain small amounts of lead, according to the federal EPA.

"Exposure to even low levels of lead can cause low IQ, hearing impairment, reduced attention span and poor classroom performance," the agency says of the effect on children.

Parents of students at Linmoor and Olde Orchard expressed surprise that their schools had been shown to have unacceptable lead levels.

"My daughter graduated here (at Olde Orchard); she went here K through 5," said Melinda Earnest, who still has kids at the school. "To know that it's just been found out and she's been here so long, that's a bit alarming.

"That makes you go, 'Wow.'"

The other Columbus buildings with high lead levels were the 17th Avenue Vehicle Maintenance Facility and the General's House at Fort Hayes Career Center. No classes are held in either building, officials said.

Warner said employees assigned to those buildings have been notified.