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Lead found in schools' water

Drinking water has been shut off to both Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools in Medford after tests showed that the water in a majority of the schools' fixtures contain lead that exceeded standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Medford School District received the test results Friday evening for Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools and McLoughlin Middle School. The results showed that 73 percent of fixtures (36 out of 49) at Jackson, 80 percent of fixtures (38 out of 47) at Roosevelt and 20 percent of fixtures (16 out of 80) at McLoughlin had elevated lead levels.

Water was shut off to the 16 affected fixtures at McLoughlin Middle School, which is being used for summer school. The district turned off the water at both elementary schools and posted signs throughout the schools. School officials also drew additional samples at all three schools for Neilson Research Corp. to retest, sent out a letter to parents and distributed water bottles for Kids Unlimited students and staff to use during their summer camp program at Roosevelt and Jackson.

The district completely replaced the plumbing in both elementary schools in 2009, and subsequent tests — taken between 2011 and 2015 — showed no indication of elevated lead levels, said Ron Havniear, the district’s facilities and support services manager.

“These are the last (schools) that we expected there to be any problems,” Havniear said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to see those elevated levels.”

The district contacted the Medford Water Commission, which will take samples at the meters at Jackson and Roosevelt Wednesday or Thursday.

“The Water Commission is testing at the meter to make sure the water coming into the school is good at the source, eliminating that as a possibility,” Havniear said.

David Searcy, the Water Commission’s conservation coordinator, said the tests will reveal whether the lead is coming from the municipal water supply or the building’s plumbing. The meter sample, he added, will have to be pulled after-hours and after the water has sat in the pipes for six hours. Neilson will expedite the tests and should have the results by the end of the week, depending on when the sample is taken.

If the incoming water supply is eliminated as a source, the district will look at its plumbing to determine the source of the lead — including backflow devices, strainers and pressure reducers, Havniear said.

“We have to do our homework and make sure we get to the root cause," he said. "We’re in a holding pattern until we get the next round of samples back.”

In the meantime, the district is referring parents with concerns to medical professionals, who can determine whether blood tests are warranted.

“We know that there is no safe level of lead,” said Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County's health officer. “And the younger you are, the more impacted you are by lead exposure.”

Havniear said, however, that according to the EPA, the 20 parts per billion or 0.02 action level isn’t a health-based number or indicator of lead poisoning, but rather a trigger for districts to respond.

Exposure to the toxic metal can cause low IQ, hearing impairment, learning and behavioral problems and kidney, liver and brain damage in youth, said Oregon Health Authority spokesman Jonathan Modie.

Children can absorb lead either by swallowing it or breathing in lead dust, which is common in houses and child care facilities built before 1950 and in houses built before 1980 that are undergoing renovations. Lead is also present in some art paint, automotive shops, ammunition and even some ceramic glazes, Modie said.

A healthy diet, he added, can help fight lead poisoning, because foods high in calcium, iron and vitamin C, in particular, help to reduce the amount of lead the body absorbs.

Kids Unlimited will continue to offer its summer camps at Roosevelt and Jackson elementary schools, said Executive Director Tom Cole.

The district, he said, has been proactive in the way it handled the issue by emailing parents and providing a form in English and Spanish with information about the problem and how it is being addressed.

There were cases of bottled water at both schools when staff members arrived this morning, as well as a phone number staff could call if they needed more water, Cole said.

“The minute they found there was an issue, they got behind it," he said. "They problem-solved and had a collective group of leadership brainstorming over the weekend. The whole process showed a great deal of integrity.”

This summer, the district invested about $10,000 into testing about 1,000 drinking fountains and sinks used at every non-charter school. Before last Friday, the results had only revealed problems with between two and four fixtures per school. The district has since retested and addressed those problems either by replacing a fixture or valve or adding a filter, Havinear said.

The district is still waiting for the results from South and North Medford high schools, Hedrick Middle School and Oak Grove Elementary School, as well as the kitchen and La Clinica health clinic modular at Jackson Elementary.

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

Lalo Ibarra watches as Sara Lopez hands out bottles of water to children participating in a Kids Unlimited program Monday at Roosevelt Elementary School. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta
Medford School District Facilities Manager Ron Havniear talks about possible sources of the lead that was found in drinking water at Roosevelt and Jackson elementary schools. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta