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Grants Pass to test lead levels in schools

On the heels of elevated lead levels found in Portland schools, the Grants Pass School District is working with the state-certified Grants Pass Water Lab to test the district's water.

Samples from every school in the district were collected and lab results are expected to arrive next week.

"Because of issues and concerns in the Portland area, we thought it was prudent to do testing at all schools and are in the process of doing that now," Sherry Ely, business director for the Grants Pass School District, told the Daily Courier on Thursday.

Ely said periodic testing was conducted in the past if a parent or staff member had concerns and that every test was found to be in compliance with Environmental Protection Agency lead and copper standards.

At the Grants Pass Water Lab, one water collection test costs $35. Samples can be collected either by the lab or school districts themselves. Grants Pass collected its samples. Test results take about three to five days to be completed.

The testing is mostly voluntary. According to the Oregon Health Authority, schools and child care programs are not subject to testing unless a school district maintains its own water supply. For schools such as Grants Pass that get water from a municipal or community water source, the decision to test for lead and copper is left entirely to the school districts.

"It's up to the local school districts if they test, where they test, how frequently, and what they do with those results," said Robb Cowie, communications director for OHA.

Currently, the Grants Pass School District sources its water from the city of Grants Pass with the exception of South Middle School, Allen Dale Elementary and Redwood Elementary, where water is sourced from private wells.

The Three Rivers School District sources water from private wells at all schools in the district. Wells are tested every three years per federal regulations at the Grants Pass Water Lab.

According to Three Rivers Superintendent David Holmes, all but two schools within the district were tested in 2014.

The two remaining sites are scheduled for testing in summer 2017.

"We follow all state requirements on testing. We've got established wells that have been tested on a regular basis for years," Holmes said. "The tests have always come back well within the EPA levels. We've never had any concern based on any test that have ever been run."

About 20 years ago, a handful of schools within the Three Rivers district were above EPA lead levels of 15 parts per billion. Now, all schools are in accordance with EPA lead and copper levels, many coming in at 0.00 mg/L.

The OHA reports that most Oregon schools and childcare programs get their drinking water from municipal or community water systems, which regularly test water at specific numbers of home taps, but not schools.

In April, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued a directive to review water quality in schools after elevated levels of lead were found in 14 of 92 water sources at Portland Public Schools, including a handful of drinking fountains.

The governor's directive includes the participation of the Oregon Department of Education and the OHA. Both agencies will work collaboratively with school districts and child care programs to test drinking water over the summer. The agencies will provide information and technical support.

Lead is a neurotoxin which children are especially susceptible to because their bodies absorb metals at higher rates than adults.

The Oregonian newspaper reported Wednesday that the a senior Portland Public Schools manager was put on paid leave because of his role in the district's much-criticized response to high lead levels found at two schools.

The manager resisted testing school water quality and gave false information about the safety of drinking water in schools.

Also this week, school district officials in the Portland suburb of Gresham said elevated lead levels were found at two schools after recent drinking water tests.

Reach reporter Alex Madison at 541-474-3718 or amadison@thedailycourier.com.