ENFIELD, NY – Residents gathered at Enfield Elementary School on Monday for a meeting regarding elevated levels of lead in the drinking water at the school. The mood of the crowd seemed somewhere between frustrated skepticism and outright hostility.
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Enfield Elementary’s water was tested in August and the results indicated that several water sources in the building had worryingly high levels of lead contamination.
The Tompkins County Health Department says that water is permitted to safely have lead levels up to 15 parts per billion. One of the rooms tested in August had a level of 640 parts per billion, another tested at 95 parts per billion and a third at 36.
The August tests were, essentially, written off as an anomaly. The tests had been performed during the summer, when the facilities were not in regular use. Testers did not follow proper procedure and flush the pipes before testing, which the Health Department says can cause larger amounts of lead to dissolve into the water and build up. When the water is being used regularly, this build-up does not happen.
Test performed 2006, 2009 and 2012 showed reasonably safe levels of lead in the water, as did tests performed in January 2016 — although one source still tested above the action level at 16 parts per billion.
In a presentation given at the meeting, the Tompkins County Department of Health said that based on the test results, it did not recommend that Enfield families have their children tested for lead poisoning. It suggested that parents who had concerns speak with their primary care provider or call the Tompkins Health Department directly.
Many Enfield parents in attendance were not satisfied with that response, or with the way that the school district and the county handled the entire affair. There were a number of particular concerns that were brought up:
1 – Why the delay in informing parents?
For many parents, one of the biggest frustrations was the lack of communication between the school district and the parents. The district was required to inform parents within 60 days of getting an abnormally high result. It seems that because the the results were considered an anomaly, these guidelines were not followed.
Many parents suggested that had they been informed of the situation in a timely manner, they could have at least prepared for it by providing bottled water for the children.
2 – What about the room that is still above acceptable levels? What about other rooms?
Room A-13, which tested 640 ppb in August, tested at 16 ppb in January – still above acceptable levels. Parents questioned what was being done about this. Furthermore, there were concerns that because testing is only based on five to ten sources of water in the building, other water sources might be above the 15 ppb “action level.”
David Brown, Chief Administration Officer for ICSD, said that the district has since tested every water source in the school. Results of those tests will be available in approximately two weeks. He also said that the faucets in room A-13 had been fully replaced.
3 – Should we really not test our children?
Many parents seemed to feel that the district and the county were writing off their worries by suggesting that the lead levels posed no significant risk and that they shouldn’t get their children tested. They felt that the children could have been exposed to higher levels of lead when they first returned from summer break.
Many in the audience were overheard saying that they already had made appointments to get their children tested.
Officials explained that while it was possible that higher lead levels were present for a short time, the system would quickly be flushed out with regular use and the extremely high concentrations indicated by the August results would quickly be removed from the system.
Many parents still had concerns that, after breaks or even after weekends, higher levels of lead might be present in the water.
As noted above, ICSD has since tested all water sources and is awaiting the test results before they take the next step. Brown also said that they were reviewing what led to the failure in communication between the district and the Health Department and why parents weren’t notified sooner.
Brown also said that since this issue has been brought to the district’s attention, they are looking into having water tested at all of their schools. Caroline Elementary school appears to have also had an issue with high levels of lead — a meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday to discuss those concerns.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to do what’s needed for these children. We believe that the county Health Department and the Ithaca City School District were working congruently and they assured us that there was no and is no risk to our children,” said Brown.