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More districts scramble to address high lead levels in school water

The reports continue to trickle in. And the news isn’t good.

Elevated amounts of lead are being found in the water fountains, faucets and shower heads at schools across the region.

At one water fountain in a Fredonia classroom, for instance, a sample showed that there was 2,850 parts per billion of lead. That’s nearly 200 times the state’s threshold for lead in water.

At Clarence Center Elementary School, five sinks in the kitchen cafeteria tested above the 15 parts per billion state threshold, results show.

And data shows a dozen classroom drinking fountains at Anna Merritt Elementary School in the Lockport City School District has elevated levels.

Given the number of older school buildings and the higher potential for corroded water fixtures in Western New York, many are understandably concerned about the risk of lead exposure that school children face each time they take a sip of water.

But despite legitimate cause for concern, local experts caution against panic. They point out that lead-based paint far exceeds contaminated water as the main driver of lead poisoning cases.

“I can tell you it is probably a minimal risk,” said Dr. Melinda Cameron, medical director of the Western New York Lead Poisoning Prevention Center.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which offers guidelines on reducing lead in school drinking water, the degree of harm from lead exposure depends on a number of factors, including a person’s overall exposure to lead from all sources in the environment, including air, soil, dust, food and water.

In September, the New York State Legislature passed an emergency measure requiring all public schools to test the lead levels in all of their potable water outlets – from exterior hose lines to drinking fountains and classroom sinks. Since then, the rush has been on to get every tap tested and to share results with the public.

Water testing labs have been inundated with water samples – 6,000 have come from Buffalo Public Schools alone – and county health departments are scrambling to keep track of test results, which must be reported to them from the school districts within a day of receiving the results. While state law requires districts complete comprehensive water testing at each faucet in each school by the end of the month, it could take much longer for results to be returned to the districts.

Although the federal government has established a lead standard in water of no greater than 20 parts per million gallons, the state’s threshold is lower at 15. Water levels considered “elevated” in area public schools so far range from the mid-teens to the thousands.

Meanwhile, private schools are not subject to any lead water testing requirements.

Since the first district results came in last week, schools have been hurriedly shutting down affected water fountains and posting signs or turning off outlets to keep students and staff from drinking lead-contaminated water. Many buildings now face unexpected costs associated with further testing and replacing fixtures and water lines that are causing the contamination.

In Williamsville, for instance, affected water fountains and sinks have been immediately shut down, with faucet and drinking fountain fixtures replaced within one to three days, said Assistant Superintendent Thomas Maturski, who oversees school facilities. The water is then retested. If that doesn’t resolve the problem, he said the district will consider how important a water outlet is to the school and whether it should remain in use.

Exterior and janitorial water faucets with elevated lead findings are remaining in service but being labeled with not-for-drinking signs.

“We’re taking immediate action to reduce any potential risk to our students and staff,” he said.

Districts have also been struggling to inform their school communities of their water test findings. Of the 83 school districts in the region under the Erie 1, Erie 2, Greater Southern Tier and Cattaraugus/Allegany boards of Cooperative Educational Services, 15 have reported on their websites their districts tested lead levels in their water.

Though the law gives school districts up to six weeks to post results on their websites, some have been more forthcoming with the data than others.

In Williamsville, for instance, district officials are updating results as they get them and had notified parents electronically on Friday to check the website for specific school results. A generic letter was sent to parents electronically through the district’s parent portal referring them to the website for more information.

The website provides much more explicit detail, with a summary, a list of affected water outlets by school and room as well as figures of lead in parts per billion. Williamsville also has an easy to find link to all of those reports on the top of its news on its district home page.

Other districts like Clarence, Lockport, Hamburg, Depew, Forestville, Silver Creek and Fredonia are also providing detailed room-by-room data with easy to find links. Some districts have also followed up by sending home school-specific letters to parents with test result information.

Districts like Hamburg and Depew provide a one-line text link to their results near the top of their websites' home page.

Others are more difficult to find, though.

The Buffalo School District had posted nothing on its website as of Monday, even though the district had results for 18 of its schools. Spokeswoman Elena Cala said the district plans to post its information by later this week or early next. The district is also prepping detailed, school-specific letters that will eventually go home to parents.

“We will constantly update the website,” Cala said.

So far, she said, test results have come back for 15 elementary schools and two schools with high school students, as well as an administrative building.

Lackawanna, Orchard Park and Newfane, were among the districts that provided minimal references to their water results on their home pages, though Lackawanna issued a more detailed press release.

Neither Iroquois nor Cleveland Hill had posted anything on their home pages, despite letters being sent to parents confirming elevated lead levels were found.

Cleveland Hill Superintendent Jon T. MacSwan told The News on Monday the district expects to release its district-wide results online as early as Thursday after it receives reports on its middle and high school buildings.

In Iroquois, Superintendent Douglas Scofield said all of its data is accessible by searching under a “state required documents” link on its “our district” drop-down menu on the home page. But he said Monday afternoon that the information should be easier to find and he would talk with district personnel about moving it out to the Iroquois schools’ home page.

Here's a running list of those districts in the region that have found lead in their water, and the links to either the superintendent's letter to parents or testing data:

Clarence Central School District

Depew Union Free School District

Hamburg Central School District

Lackawanna City School District

Williamsville Central Schools

Lewiston-Porter Central School District

Lockport City School District

Newfane Central School District

Forestville Central School District

Orchard Park Central School District

North Collins Central School District

Silver Creek Central School District

Allegany-Limestone Central School District

Portville Central School

Fredonia Central School District

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