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A different school test

School districts are testing water for lead in school drinking fountains and faucets across the Rogue Valley.

The testing was recommended by the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education just weeks after startling results from Portland Public Schools' tests, conducted over the last seven years, came to light.

Those results showed that at least one drinking fountain in 51 of the district’s schools was dispensing water with lead levels exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion or 0.015 milligrams per liter. Two Portland schools, Rose City Park School and Creston Elementary, had drinking fixtures dispensing water with up to three times the federal action level.

Since then, many local districts have scheduled tests of a cross section of water fixtures at each site this summer.

The Medford School District tested most of its water fixtures between 2006 and 2008. At that time, tests at Jefferson Elementary revealed unacceptable lead levels of 0.015 to 0.017 milligrams, resulting in a replacement of the school’s plumbing system.

“From that point on, we’ve used a system of spot checking,” said Ron Havniear, the district’s support services and facilities manager. “We would test four samples at every elementary school and eight to 10 at every secondary school during the summer to give us an idea if and where there are issues.”

The district does additional testing outside the standard test cycle when there is a construction project that will disturb the water supply or when there is a broken pipe or other plumbing issue, explained the district’s spokeswoman, Natalie Hurd.

There are about 60 water fixtures at elementary schools and about 100 at the high schools, Havniear said.

The district uses 0.012 as its trigger rather than 0.015, giving it a buffer in which to address problems, he said.

In light of recent events, the district will spend about $10,000 this summer testing every drinking fixture, including bathroom and kitchen sinks, at every school, said Chief Operations Officer Brad Earl.

“Recent concerns have raised public awareness, but this is not reactionary on the part of the Medford School District,” Earl said. “We have a decade-long record of testing for lead in our water. It predates that. It’s just in the last decade we’ve had a formalized process.”

The Eagle Point, Phoenix-Talent and Rogue River school district also have ordered tests of a handful of fixtures at each school this summer.

The Phoenix-Talent School District has collected samples at Talent Elementary and expects the results next week. It will collect samples from its other schools over the next few weeks, said Superintendent Teresa Sayre.

The Eagle Point School District has collected water samples from about 40 water fountains and faucets districtwide and delivered the last of its samples to Neilson Research Corporation, a local, certified, water-testing laboratory, Tuesday morning, according to district Business Manager Scott Whitman.

“If any tests come back positive above the recommended limits, we will expand testing in that building and come up with a plan to fix the problem,” Whitman said.

In the Eagle Point School District, only Shady Cove School and Lake Creek Learning Center are tested regularly. Shady Cove School is on a well and is tested every three years for lead and copper. Lake Creek Learning Center’s water is trucked in and is tested annually for contaminants. No issues have been reported at either school, Whitman said.

Rogue River Superintendent Paul Young said the district tests its water, although not specifically for lead, on a regular basis and will conduct lead tests on water faucets and fountains this summer. Young said he does not expect any lead problems, because the district has recently upgraded to modern, eco-friendly, filtered fountains.

“We are as anxious as anyone to see reports confirming that our water is safe and healthy,” he said.

Ashland School District Facilities Coordinator Gary Sisk ordered tests of a few fixtures at each school and one fixture at the district’s maintenance shop in April. In an email dated April 14, Sisk informed district staff that all of the fixtures tested were “way below” the EPA’s action level.

Sisk included the analytical results from Neilson Research Corporation in the email. Two samples were taken at Bellview and Briscoe elementary schools and Willow Wind Community Learning Center, three at Helman and Walker elementary schools, five at Ashland High School and four at Ashland Middle School. The lead levels ranged from “none determined” at one Ashland Middle School fixture to a high of 0.00822 at a Helman Elementary fixture.

Sams Valley Elementary in the Central Point School District is on a well and is tested weekly for chlorine, and every three years for lead and copper. However, district staff were unable to find any evidence that the water at any of the other schools in the district were tested for lead, said Superintendent Samantha Steele.

“On June 2nd, our maintenance department collected samples (according to protocol from Neilson) from a range of sources at all in-town schools and the Gold Hill schools, and submitted those samples to Neilson Research,” Steele said.

According to the results, which the district received Wednesday afternoon, all 36 fixtures tested were safe. Lead levels ranged from "none determined" to a high of 0.0115.

“To date, testing water for lead is not a requirement for schools,” Steele said. “I think the Oregon Legislature is changing that, and I am fully in support of routine testing for lead and copper."

For the last two weeks, Neilson Research has been overwhelmed by the number of water samples coming in from school districts and has had to expand its hours from five to seven days a week and add an evening shift to meet the demand, said Kim Ramsay, the laboratory’s vice president

Because of client privacy agreements, Ramsay could not comment on how many samples had been tested, which school districts were clients and what the results were.

“All I can say is we’re a certified lab, and we’re busy,” she said.

She said the laboratory charges most school districts $20 per sample to test for lead and copper.

According to the EPA, exposure to even small amounts of lead can cause low IQ, hearing impairment, reduced attention span and poor classroom performance in kids, who are more susceptible to the toxic metal.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

Kim Ramsay, vice president with Neilson Research Corporation, sorts through school water samples Thursday at the laboratory in Medford. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch