Schools across Maine are reporting high concentrations of lead in their water fixtures since all were ordered to test cooking and drinking taps under a 2019 state law.
Samples from almost a third of the more than 2,500 fixtures schools had tested as of Jan. 27 came back with lead concentrations that exceeded the four-parts-per-billion threshold that the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for schools to stop using those taps.
Results on some fixtures came back with lead concentrations hundreds of times higher than that threshold, according to results published by the Maine Drinking Water Program.
The test results offer Maine’s first comprehensive look at water fixture lead levels in all of the state’s schools. While no level of lead in water is safe and the results may provoke alarm, the elevated lead concentrations aren’t representative of how much lead students are exposed to throughout the school day. In addition, school drinking water doesn’t represent a major source of childhood lead exposure.
School test results represent the first 250 milliliters of water that leave the tap after standing in the fixture or plumbing for at least 8 hours, said Amy Lachance, director of the Maine Drinking Water Program.
“The sample represents the worst-case scenario first thing in the morning; it doesn’t accurately represent the quality of the drinking water after it has been flowing throughout the school day, which should be much lower in lead concentration,” Lachance said.
Maine schools began testing their taps in October and will continue through May. Maine’s lead levels have been in line with what other states reported in their school fixtures, Lachance said.
Replacing older taps will result in much lower lead levels in water, she said. However, the state doesn’t require schools to fix leaden taps and doesn’t cover the costs of doing so when schools report elevated lead levels.
In Bangor, nine of the city’s public schools reported having elevated levels of lead in some of their water and cooking fixtures.
For example, two faucets at the Downeast School — one in a classroom and one in the school Book Room — contained 1,500 parts of lead per billion parts of water and 663 parts of lead per billion parts of water, respectively.
Bangor Superintendent James Tager said in a letter to parents on Jan. 18 that the school department would work with testing firm Haley Ward to remedy all affected taps, including by installing new filters and replacing equipment.
Bangor School Department spokesperson Ray Phinney said that the department had retested its taps and begun addressing those with elevated lead levels. The department will continue to provide bottled water to students until remediation is completed.
“We want to make sure that we fix the issue, not just put a Band-Aid on it,” Phinney said.
The Lewis Libby School in Milford school reported that 45 of its taps — mostly kitchen sinks, office taps and classroom faucets — had elevated lead levels ranging from 4.8 to 3,460 parts of lead per billion parts of water after testing 82 faucets.
The school said it would shut off access to the affected taps and retest them after remediation efforts, which it expected to complete by Jan. 18. Superintendent and Principal Trish Clark could not be reached for comment.
There aren’t enough data to suggest that parents should be concerned that their kids are being exposed to high concentrations of lead in school water systems, said Roger Crouse, the former program manager for the Maine Drinking Water Program, who testified in opposition to the 2019 state testing law.
“The risk of one child being exposed multiple times to the same stagnant water is fairly low,” Crouse said, noting that experts have pointed to lead paint in older homes as the biggest source of childhood lead poisoning, not school drinking water.
Lead can leach into water systems where older housing stock often has lead paint, or from corrosion of lead, brass and copper plumbing.
One kitchen sink at Andover Elementary School in western Maine reported having 85 parts of lead per billion parts of water. The building is more than 115 years old, which might explain the high amount, said Superintendent Susan Pratt.
The school department has since installed new filters and retested those taps, Pratt said, and the second round of results reported much lower amounts of lead. The school has replaced some pipes in the past few years.
“We were pleased with how good it came back the second time,” she said, adding that administrators would continue to keep an eye on lead levels.
The Dike Newell School in Bath reported that 14 of the 18 taps it tested in late November had elevated lead levels ranging from 4.2 to 123 parts of lead per billion parts of water, though it questioned the accuracy of the latter figure and requested a retest.
A number of the tested taps were drinking fountains that had been shut down for more than a year due to COVID-19 and had been replaced by new bottle filling stations, Director of Facilities David Roberts wrote in a letter to parents. Regional School Unit 1 will finish remediation efforts by Feb. 18.
A number of school systems across the state and in the Bangor area, including Regional School Unit 22 in the Hampden area, Regional School Unit 26 in Orono, and school departments in Hermon and Brewer, haven’t yet tested their taps.
Lead poses special risk to children because they absorb the metal at higher rates than adults. Children younger than 6 are especially at risk because of their rapid rate of growth.
Prolonged exposure to lead can cause brain, red blood cell and kidney damage, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Public water systems — including those providing water to schools and child care facilities — must take action if lead levels reach 15 or more parts of lead per billion parts of water, under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Concern over lead in public water systems grew after lead seeped into the drinking water in Flint, Michigan in 2014, causing a public health crisis.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of Bangor public schools with elevated lead levels and where the school department is in the process of addressing those lead levels.