ITHACA, NY – The results of lead tests on the water in Caroline and Enfield Elementary Schools were released Tuesday night — and they don’t look good.
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Between the two schools, more than 40 water samples tested above the 15 parts per billion (ppb) of lead in the water “action level” — that is, the level at which the concentration of lead is high enough that action is required to work toward fixing the problem. Some samples tested at over 30 times that level.
(For more information about the implications of those numbers, read our previous article “Opinion: Lead in the water at Ithaca schools: fear or real danger?“)
A closer look at the numbers
Out of 65 water fixtures tested in Enfield Elementary, 11 (16.9 percent) tested above the action level. Out of 91 water fixtures tested in Caroline Elementary, 35 (38.4 percent) tested above the action level.
It’s worth noting that not all of these are direct sources of drinking water, but eight of the sources tested in Caroline and three from Enfield were from drinking fountains.
The highest lead levels from drinking fountains were one that tested at 190 ppb in Enfield and one at 150 ppb in Caroline, both more than 10 times the acceptable level.
A number of other samples that tested high for lead were from bathroom or classroom sinks which may or may not be used regularly for drinking water. Some other sources include boiler rooms and janitorial closets which students would likely not have access to.
Questions of accountability
Melissa Hoffman, a Caroline parent, said that when she first saw the complete results, said she was “beyond words.”
“I knew they were going to be bad, but I never thought they were going to be this bad,” she said.
Hoffman said that she was happy that the school was taking the initiative in providing clean water for the students. However, she was disheartened that the school was letting the Tompkins County Health Department take the lead in future actions, since she felt that they showed a failure in leadership when the first test results were discovered in August.
Hoffman said that a lot of parents in Caroline want to know who is accountable for the lead situation.
“There’s a whole long line of reasoning and reasons: jobs have changed, positions have changed and systems weren’t put in place to prevent something like this from happening, but no one has really come forward or taken any responsibility for this,” she said.
According to Hoffman, some parents have been weighing the option of taking legal action against the school. “From a parent’s perspective, I want accountability, but I’m not sure that’s the right way to take them on. We want money going toward fixing our school,” she said.
As for how the school can make it right, the answer is pretty straightforward for Hoffman. “Obviously we need a massive infrastructure renovation. We need major upgrades to our school and facilities. Immediately.”
Outpouring of support
Katie Arthur, a parent from Enfield, also felt that the district should ultimately be looking at replacing the pipes in the schools, though she acknowledged that that would be a “huge undertaking” that might require state aid. However, she said that just knowing that plans were in the works would do a lot to put parents’ minds at ease.
Aside from fixing the lead issue itself, Arthur said that her other big expectation from the school district is that they would be up front and communicate better with parents if something like this were to happen in the future.
In the meantime, Arthur said that she wanted to take a proactive approach in doing what she could to help the school.
“We went to the public forum on February 8th and came out of it feeling very uneasy. We didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in the higher ups in the district,” she said. “The next my husband called me at work and said ‘We have to do something.’”
Arthur agreed and together they set about contacting local retailers in the community.
“The outpouring was fantastic,” Arthur said. At the time we spoke, she said that her husband had just picked up 56 cases of water from Wegmans. The Arthurs had also collected donations from Lowes, Walmart, Home Depot and members of the community.
“Our school is lower income, even though its ICSD, so I feel like a lot of parents are going to have to choose between ‘Do I provide a meal, or do I provide clean drinking water for my kid?’ That’s not a decision any parent should have to make,” Arthur said.
Arthur also praised Enfield principal Lisa Rieger for working with parents on creative solutions to help face this problem. The school will be providing recycling receptacles for the impending influx of water bottles. The plan is for those bottles to be collected and returned for their deposits, with the money collected being donated right back to the school.
Officials forming a plan of action
In an email sent to parents on Tuesday disclosing the results of the newest tests, ICSD Superintendent Luvelle Brown wrote that the district would be placing water coolers in the two schools for students to use.
The school has agreed to turn off all “consumptive resources” of water in the school — that is “anywhere somebody can put a water bottle under,” according to Tompkins County Health Department Spokesperson Theresa Lyczko.
As was the case when the issue first came to light, the Health Department is not recommending that children need to be tested for elevated blood levels.
Superintendent Brown said that the district is collaborating with the county to form an action plan, and is also “working with ICSD staff, health care professionals, engineers, plumbers and other experts to further analyze the testing results.”
Brown addressed concerned parents in an interview with WHCU, saying “I hope those parents, along with our entire community, will take the time to be educated about the issue we’re dealing with, and also listen to not only me, but health professionals. Our buildings are safe, and they have been. This is an issue that we’re dealing with right now, but it’s also an issue every school district has and will have to deal with at some point.”
(Photo: Steven Depolo on Flickr)
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