High levels of lead in Healdsburg Elementary water

High levels of lead have been discovered in drinking fountains at Healdsburg Elementary School’s main building, county school and public health officials said Wednesday.

The lead contamination first was detected over Thanksgiving break. Though Healdsburg school officials immediately shut off drinking fountains and began providing bottled water, parents and the Sonoma County public health department were not notified until this week because officials wanted to wait until they had a corrective plan in place.

“Currently, no student has any contact with drinking water that is of concern,” said Chris Vanden Heuvel, superintendent of the Healdsburg Unified School District. “We are working with the public health department to make sure that there are no health concerns for our students. If we discover that there are, we will be issuing an advisory with the county health department.”

Karen Milman, Sonoma County health officer, said she was notified of the problem Monday and that her office on Tuesday had received results from tests taken by the school district. She said county health department staff took samples of the water Tuesday and have submitted those tests to a state lab, with results expected by the end of the week.

The district’s tests showed that at one drinking fountain near First Street, 880 parts per billion of lead were found. That’s about 59 times the level at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires action, which is 15 ppb. However, the federal limits are based on an assumption that water being tested is the main source of water for an individual, Milman said.

“Typically, students only get a very small portion of their water consumption from a school drinking fountain,” Milman said. “Any drinking water that’s above the EPA level, you’d want to investigate and take action on. Which the school did.”

Milman said the county health department could not make a more accurate assessment of the health impacts until it gets the results of its own testing, which are conducted with “proper methodology.”

Parents interviewed as they watched their children play after school Wednesday appeared generally satisfied with the manner in which school officials had dealt with the water quality issue.

Several said they guessed there were questions about the safety of the water when they saw bottled drinking water appear around campus last fall - though one assumed they were part of an effort to ensure students stayed hydrated and another thought perhaps structural plumbing issues had cropped up.

But most were not aware the administration knew there were elevated lead levels as early as Dec. 2 and assumed the delay in alerting parents was because of continued testing.

“That seems like a big chunk of time to have passed,” said Michelle Schultz, mother of a first-grader. “I was irritated.”

Another mother, Vicky Keel, said her high-school-age daughter declared the water “really milky and gross” long ago and was surprised that parents were not alerted sooner about suspected contamination.

“I think it’s nice they finally explained,” Keel said.

“I had no idea,” said Kim Sundberg. “I always kind of wondered why they had all those Alhambra water stations.”

The district’s water samples were taken in December by Redwood Empire Schools Insurance Group, and were tested by EMSL Analytical of Cinnaminson, N.J. High levels of iron and manganese, beyond the EPA limits, also were found.

At two schoolrooms on the campus, 2,600 ppb of iron and 330 ppb of manganese were found. The federal limit for iron is 300 ppb and the limit for manganese is 50 ppb.

But Milman said that iron and manganese are classified as “secondary contaminants” that don’t generally have health impacts.

“They affect the aesthetic value of the water, its color, taste and odor,” she said.

Vanden Heuvel said Wednesday the problem appears to be tied to aging pipes in a building that is 80 years old. Lead solder in the plumbing fixtures may have begun to leach into the water.

He said that a school staff member noticed “clouding in the water” in mid-November. Vanden Heuvel said city staff came out and tested the school’s city-provided water supply from the street. Those tests came up negative for contaminants.

Vanden Heuvel said the district then brought in an industrial hygienist, who during the Thanksgiving holiday reported high levels of contaminants.

“We immediately shut off drinking water at water fountains,” Vanden Heuvel said. “When students came back from the Thanksgiving break, we had bottled water available for drinking.”

Vanden Heuvel said the district also immediately moved all food preparation to the Healdsburg High School campus.

“All food prep was there until January, when they got confirmation that the water was safe to prepare food at the Healdsburg Elementary kitchen, which was tested twice,” Vanden Heuvel said.

Vanden Heuvel said the district has been working on construction plans for “re-plumbing” the entire campus, but that work will likely not be undertaken until the summer.

The building where the contamination was found serves children from pre-kindergarten to second grade, so a regular student likely would have been able to drink from the fountain over a four-year period. Vanden Heuvel said that although immediate action was taken as soon a school staff noticed there was a problem with the water, there is no way of knowing how long children had been exposed to high levels of lead.

“There’s no real good way for us to know; it has to do with the deterioration of the materials themselves in the plumbing system,” he said. “There are no parameters that we have for water testing, it’s not something that’s mandated,” he said.

Milman, the public health officer, said adverse health effects due to lead contamination depend on how long someone is exposed and how much water they drink. She assured parents that there is no ongoing exposure to contaminants and that there have been no reports of lead poisoning.

“We’ve had no cases of elevated blood-lead in children in Healdsburg for a number of years,” she said. “If parents are very concerned, they can talk to their health care providers about blood-lead testing.”

Steve Herrington, Sonoma County schools superintendent, said his office was notified of the problem in Healdsburg on Monday and he has since contacted county school superintendents to warn them of possibility older schools may have similar problems.

“This can be an issue in some schools built before 1989,” Herrington wrote in an email sent Wednesday to local superintendents.

“Until that point, lead was still allowed to be used to join pipes together. The school district is addressing the problem and children are no longer exposed,” Herrington wrote.

Herrington said testing of a school’s drinking water would be the responsibility of each school district.

Staff Writer Mary Callahan contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

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