A person walks behind a water fountain
A student walks in the hallway past a water fountain at Noble School in Detroit, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. Credit: Paul Sancya / AP

The Bangor School Department has replaced water pipes and fixtures in seven city schools after testing revealed high concentrations of lead in the water from those taps. More significant work remains to address high lead levels at three other schools.

The water fixture replacements in Bangor are one example of work Maine school districts have started after a round of state-required testing of school cooking and drinking taps revealed high lead concentrations at schools around the state.

The testing is happening through the end of this month under the 2019 law that required the evaluation of all school cooking and drinking taps. In Bangor, water from fixtures at all but one of the city’s schools had high lead concentrations.

So far this year, Bangor has had water lines, fixtures and faucets replaced at Vine Street, Bangor High, William S. Cohen, James F. Doughty, Fourteenth Street and Fruit Street schools as well as the Bangor Regional Program, according to Bangor School Department spokesperson Ray Phinney.  

The city addressed those schools first because it could complete the work during school breaks. The school department plans larger projects over the summer to address high lead levels at Downeast, Fairmount and Abraham Lincoln schools.

Mary Snow School needed no remediation, Phinney said, as its water sources passed the initial round of tests.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Drinking Water Program, which is overseeing the school lead testing, states no amount of lead in drinking water is safe, but a faucet should be addressed if the water from it contains more than four parts per billion of lead. In Bangor, some taps had water with hundreds of parts lead per billion parts water.

Schools tested the first 250 milliliters of water that left the tap after standing in the fixture or plumbing for at least 8 hours, Amy Lachance, director of the Maine Drinking Water Program, said earlier this year.

Bangor is applying for grants to help cover the larger projects, Phinney said, but the work will be completed regardless of whether the district receives funding.

Water becomes contaminated with lead when it passes through or sits in pipes and faucets made with lead, according to Roger Crouse, general manager of the Kennebec Water District who worked with the state drinking water program for 18 years. The amount of lead that leaches into the water depends on the water’s temperature, how corrosive the water is and how long it sits there.

“The longer it sits, the hotter the temperature, and the more corrosive the water, the more likely lead is going to be leached into the water,” he said.

The full list of Bangor’s lead test results is available on the school department’s website. With the first round of projects complete, the school department was waiting for results Monday from a new round of tests to ensure the work it’s done so far has been successful.

Meanwhile, schools are providing safe drinking water to students with water coolers in hallways or filtered water bottle filling stations and water fountains, Phinney said.

The individual projects to lower lead levels cost from $300 to $92,000, depending on how extensive the work is, Phinney said. Altogether, fixing lead-laden pipes and fixtures in schools will cost the school department about $100,000.

Crouse said he wasn’t surprised to see high lead concentrations in Maine schools that were built before Congress passed a law in 2011 setting the maximum lead content in water fixtures at 0.25 percent. That law took effect in January 2014.

Though some taps in Bangor schools were found to have high concentrations of lead, Crouse said children likely haven’t been poisoned by lead from their schools.

“There are possibilities of people having negative health outcomes because of lead in drinking water,” Crouse said. “But in the levels and exposure frequencies we’re talking about, I don’t know there’s a lot of data out there to support that.”

Though Maine schools should replace water faucets and piping with lead, the fixtures and paint in children’s homes pose a far greater risk, especially because children spend more time at home than at school, Crouse said.

Lead paint wasn’t banned in the U.S. until 1978, so any house built before then could contain it, he said.

“If parents are concerned about lead exposure, they need to start with their own house and figure out what the risks are there,” Crouse said.

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...