Elevated lead level in area school creates cause for concern
Early this morning, superintendent Jerry Weast warned staff and students about possible contamination of drinking water after elevated levels of lead were found in the water of Maryvale Elementary School, the first of 20 schools in Montgomery County to be tested.
In a letter to MCPS, Weast mandated schools follow an emergency action procedure. The main component of Weast's plan is to have all hallway and locker room drinking fountains flushed for 15 minutes prior to students' arrival and every four hours after that. Fountains in science labs and ice from school ice machines cannot be used at all.
Attendance secretary Roxanne Fus said she expects these policies to continue until more schools have been tested. Weast said that the procedures will be enacted at least throughout the weekend.
"There is reason to believe, based on these tests, elevated levels of lead may be found in other schools," Weast said in his letter. However, in an announcement made at the beginning of fourth period, Fus said, "Since Blair is a newer school, we do not anticipate any problems."
An announcement on the MCPS web site on March 17 said the extensive inspections would continue throughout April. The announcement said due to limited resources, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), who is directing the testing, will only be able to test one school a day, prolonging the time it will take for conclusions to be reached.
On March 16, Brian Porter, Director of the Department of Communications for MCPS, sent an email to MCPS staff detailing the process for water testing. Porter also said that since the 1980s, measures have been taken to "reduce the potential for elevated levels of lead." These include replacing fountains and "flushing all water outlets for 30 seconds each morning before students arrive."
In recent years, there have been few problems with lead in the water. However, Porter noted that in 2000, Seneca Valley High School had to install a new filtering system due to elevated levels of lead.
The EPA's mandated water tests will take place towards the end of this year, but new fears prompted by the contaminated drinking water are pushing independent tests forward to as early as this week. On March 8, a D.C. law firm served an intent to sue notice against the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers, accusing the two agencies of failing to protect the welfare of its customers according to a Washington Times article. Testing in the District and Arlington found that lead levels are in the thousands of parts per billion, a very unhealthy level.
In 2002, WSSC tested 55 homes and found lead levels in water to be seven parts per billion, which is below the EPA's limit of 15 parts per billion.
Unlike the District, where water problems stem from problems with the main water source, water irregularities in Montgomery County and Prince George's County vary from site to site, according to WSSC spokesman Chuck Brown. "The primary source of elevated levels of lead are lead based solders that were banned in 1986 that hooked up brass plumber fixtures," he said. "It's not as much as a water quality issue as much as a plumbing problem."
In addition, unlike the Distict of Columbia's Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), WSSC does not use chloramines to treat water because some scientists believe the chemical causes corrosion to lead containing materials.
Besides the 50 homes the WSSC will test in the near future, the agency is assisting in testing several schools, two per day in Montgomery and Prince George's counties for lead. If lead levels are elevated, WSSC is not responsible for repairing pipes. "The county would be responsible for changes though, because different local governments have different regulations for acceptable lead levels."
If residents are concerned about the safety of their water, WSSC will test water and for an assessment fee of $46.44 for WSSC customers and $61.44 for non-WSSC customers. Homeowners can take their own precautions by flushing their tap for 30 seconds to two minutes and cooking with cold tap water.
For more information, call 301-206-7575 or visit WSSC's website
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