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Lead Found In 34 Washington Drinking Water Systems

Thirty-four water systems in Washington state were found to have unacceptable levels of lead. Most of those systems are now in compliance, although four of them are still working toward lower lead levels.
Flickr Photo/Christina Spicuzza (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Thirty-four water systems in Washington state were found to have unacceptable levels of lead. Most of those systems are now in compliance, although four of them are still working toward lower lead levels.

Flint, Michigan, isn't the only place with lead in its drinking water: 34 water systems in Washington state have tested above acceptable levels of the toxic metal, according to a new investigation from USA Today.

The list includes water systems at five schools: Maple Valley Elementary, Griffin School near Olympia, Shelton Valley Christian School, Skamania Elementary and Washington State Patrol Academy.

Water at those schools is currently in compliance with federal law, according to Mike Means with the Washington Department of Health.

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Four other water systems, and a fifth that was not on USA Today’s list, are currently putting corrosion controls in place to keep lead out of the water people drink.

"There's only four of them remaining that were shown on that list that actually have any ongoing issue, which we're continuing to work with those water systems to address," Mike Means with the Washington Department of Health told KUOW.

In fact, lead problems have been cleared up at most of the 34 water systems noted by the newspaper, state health officials said.

USA Today looked at water tests taken between 2012 and 2015 and compiled in the Environmental Protection Agency's Safe Drinking Water Information System database.

The Washington state water systems on USA Today's list are mostly small and rural.

Some water sources can be naturally corrosive enough to liberate the highly toxic lead found in older plumbing into the water passing by it.

Shelton Seventh-Day Adventist Church pastor Cristian Bobocea said this was the first he'd heard of any lead problems in the well water at the Shelton Valley school. In an email, he said the school's water is regularly tested.

"The reports we receive do not raise any red flags of concern, nor has the school received any official notice about lead level concerns," he said.

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Even so, after KUOW's inquiry, he said the school has requested additional water testing and is recommending students and staff drink bottled or filtered water until the results come back.

"Safe water for children to drink is a fundamental responsibility," he said.

In an email, officials at Maple Valley Elementary, part of Rainier Christian Schools, said their water is tested yearly for lead and that they immediately installed new plumbing as soon as they got the bad test result.

"We're very conscious of our water quality and making sure we're in compliance," Randy Martin, Griffin School facilities supervisor, told KUOW.

The K-8 public school west of Olympia had one water test in 2012 show a lead concentration higher than EPA's 15 parts per billion threshold for action. Griffin said the school did 20 tests the next year; all found less than 1 part per billion of lead.

Means said all water systems do their own testing. Schools often rely on their custodial staff, and the data quality can vary.

The EPA database prominently features this disclaimer: "NOTICE: EPA is aware of inaccuracies and underreporting of some data in the Safe Drinking Water Information System. We are working with the states to improve the quality of the data."

Children are especially sensitive to lead poisoning. They can suffer permanent brain damage. Doctors say there is no safe level of lead in the bloodstream.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer investigation found in 2004 that some schools here had high levels of lead in the water. Wedgwood Elementary had discolored water – students received water bottles – and AE2 Decatur (now Thornton Creek) was found to have lead levels 80 times over the EPA's recommended limit at the time.  

One mother told the newspaper that her son appeared to have suffered from the amount of lead he had consumed – he had headaches, trouble sleeping and was acting out. He had been a docile toddler but lashed out after arriving in kindergarten – when he started drinking the water.

Means said health officials are not aware of any cases in Washington where anyone's blood-lead level has been raised as a result of contaminated water.

He said the main sources of lead poisoning in Washington are lead paint and lead-contaminated soil. 

As KUOW has reported previously, the largest source of lead air pollution is leaded aviation fuel burned by small planes.

Flickr photo by Christina Spicuzza (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Year started with KUOW: 2009