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National

Pacific Northwest Schools Respond To Lead In Drinking Water

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Schools across Oregon and Washington state are responding to recent discoveries of lead in drinking water. The findings have shocked some parents. Many districts are now testing drinking fountains and faucets throughout their buildings. Rob Manning of Oregon Public Broadcasting has more.

ROB MANNING, BYLINE: You figure an elementary school at 6:00 a.m. on a July morning - it's going to be quiet, but not this summer in Oregon. Brent Tolliver is the plumbing foreman for the Beaverton School District just west of Portland. He's showing the contractors where to start lead testing.

BRENT TOLLIVER: We can catch the kitchen and this area right up here in the front first. They have a daycare that starts at 7.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.

MANNING: So the contractors - two college interns - get to work. They crack open a box of small plastic bottles. Stick a bottle under the faucet. Turn it on. Fill with water. Wait 30 seconds, and fill another bottle. Those samples will go to a nearby lab to test for lead levels.

This Beaverton elementary school is less than 10 years old. Lead isn't likely. You might think testing here isn't necessary.

TOLLIVER: I thought that at first.

MANNING: Tolliver says he changed his mind.

TOLLIVER: But because how critical this can be, it was important to get a baseline in all of our schools to start.

MANNING: Now he sees the justification.

TOLLIVER: You know, without testing every faucet, there was no way for us to guarantee our kids were safe.

MANNING: Parents in the Northwest have been asking about the water since the lead crisis started in Flint, Mich. Questions from students in Beaverton resulted in lead discoveries at a middle school. Portland parents raised questions dating back to the winter.

When Portland Public Schools did test the water, officials were slow to release information. Some of what they said turned out to be inaccurate. Then reports came out showing the district had been quietly dealing with lead for years with little public notice.

MIKE SOUTHERN: It is time that we, as a city and a community, demand better.

MANNING: Parents like Mike Southern filled school meetings to lambaste officials.

SOUTHERN: The damage has been done. There is no making this right. Lead is running through the blood of our kids.

MANNING: In fact, during the last two weeks of school, Portland turned off the drinking water and supplied bottled water. They also offered limited lead screening to students and some staff. Health officials aren't happy with the school district's response, but they point out that schools are far from the only source of lead. Jae Douglas directs environmental health at Multnomah County.

JAE DOUGLAS: Well over 80 percent of the cases that we've identified have been related to the home. So, proportionally, it's the most common area. Sometimes we are not able to identify the source.

MANNING: In the end, the county did more than 500 blood tests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK. Good job. And then I just use this straw to suck up the blood.

MANNING: Only two kids had high lead levels in their blood. After an investigation, the county health department says those kids were exposed to lead at home. Portland's water bureau says it's sending lots of kits to homeowners so they can test their own water. Portland school officials have released results from 24 school buildings it tested over the last month. All the schools had high lead levels in at least some of their water fixtures. For NPR News, I'm Rob Manning in Portland, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.