High Lead Levels Discovered In Chicago School's Drinking Fountains

Jun 1, 2016
Originally published on June 7, 2016 3:35 pm

It was a year ago, that Zashonda Alexander celebrated her oldest daughter's graduation from eighth grade.

High hopes turned into anxiety, though, after Alexander found out that her daughter, Junta, tested positive for lead poisoning. Tests for lead in the family's home proved negative, says Alexander, and she believes the culprit may be the drinking water at Tanner Elementary, a school on Chicago's South Side.

Tanner was the only school to show high levels of lead when authorities conducted a pilot test of 32 Chicago public schools. Now, the school district is offering blood tests to check for lead levels of any Tanner student, if a parent requests it.

'An Isolated Incident'

When Chicago began its pilot test in late April, it joined other school districts across the country taking steps as a result of the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich. The health hazard in Flint was caused by extremely high levels of lead in the city's drinking water after authorities changed Flint's water source from treated Detroit water to the Flint River.

In Chicago, most of the water outlets at the schools in the pilot showed little trace of lead; some had lead levels well below the federal government's standard of 15 ppb.

However, lead levels in three of the water fountains at Tanner were much higher, ranging from 47 ppb to 114 ppb. The school shut those fountains down, replacing them with water coolers.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forest Claypool calls Tanner's results an isolated incident but says, "in an abundance of caution, we will be testing every faucet and water fountain that a student or staff member could be using for drinking water or consuming food in preparation with that water."

Claypool adds that testing will focus first on 250 Chicago public schools built before lead pipes were banned in 1986.

Like other city water departments throughout the country, Chicago adds orthophosphate to the water it distributes through the city's system of mostly lead service lines. The chemical adheres to the pipes. The protective coating prevents lead from leaching into the water.

Chicago's water commissioner, Barrett Murphy, says it works best if water flows through the pipes frequently. The department is also conducting a diagnostic study to determine what exactly happened at Tanner.

"We believe the high lead levels were isolated to drinking fountains not in high use," Murphy says. "Other fountains with high use did not have detectable levels of lead."

Murphy says authorities will also devise more aggressive flushing protocols for Tanner and other schools throughout the district, which will require authorities to run water at fountains and taps for a certain period of time to bring in fresh water that has not been sitting in the pipes.

'We're Going To Do This The Right Way'

Many parents at Tanner still have concerns, though, about the safety of the school's water. At a recent community meeting, they fill up the school's gymnasium along with children and area residents. Officials from the school district and the city's health and water departments stand in a line at the front of the gym. Tanner's principal, Nicole White, addresses the crowd first.

"You know you have advocates here at Tanner," she says. "You know we're not going to let anything happen to our babies. We're going to do this the right way."

However, Victoria Mosby, who has children in first, fourth and sixth grade at Tanner, isn't convinced.

"How long has this been going on?" she asks. "The three water fountains that they took is off the floor that my sixth-grader is on. So there's no telling how long my son has been drinking this polluted water and I have a problem with that."

Diana Greenhill, who has a daughter in fourth grade at Tanner, wants to know how the exposure to lead could affect the roughly 370 students who attend the school.

"Is it making them agitated because it messes with the neurological system?" Greenhill asks worriedly. She added that the water problems could be as dire as those in Flint.

"Chicago is no Flint," says Chicago's health commissioner, Julie Morita. Morita says there is no evidence that connects elevated lead levels to the city's water, which is drawn from Lake Michigan. She adds that most instances of lead poisoning among children in Chicago come from lead-based paint, not water.

"I have a child who attends a Chicago public school who drinks out of the water fountain and I would do the same," Morita says. "I don't feel like we need to have water bottles and water coolers shipped to every Chicago school," she continues, "but I think it's reasonable to test and reassure people that our water is safe."

The results of the expanded lead-in-water tests that are now underway at hundreds of Chicago public schools could bring a whole new level of confidence or concern.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the next few weeks, more than 250 Chicago public schools will be tested for lead in drinking fountains and cooking facilities. Chicago school and health officials insist there's no need for alarm. They say the water is safe and the steps are being taken out of an abundance of caution.

But a pilot test revealed elevated lead levels at an elementary school. And parents want answers. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: The gymnasium at Tanner Elementary School in Chicago's South Side filled up quickly with parents, children and neighborhood residents. They came to get details and ask questions about the school district's pilot test, which revealed that Tanner was the only school out of 32 tested that showed elevated lead levels in its water fountains.

Tanner's principal, Nicole White, microphone in hand, addressed the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICOLE WHITE: You know you have advocates here at Tanner. You know we're not going to let anything happen to our babies. Let's do this the right way.

CORLEY: Officials say most of the water outlets in Tanner showed little trace of lead, with test results well below the federal government standard of 15 parts per billion. However, high levels of lead were found at three of the school's water fountains, with levels ranging from 47 to 114 parts per billion.

That alarmed Victoria Mosby (ph). Tanner has about 370 students. And she has children in first, fourth and sixth grade.

VICTORIA MOSBY: How long have our kids been exposed to this situation? The three water fountains that they took is off the floor that my sixth grader is on. So there's no telling how long my son has been drinking this polluted water. And I have a problem with that.

CORLEY: School officials say the school's water fountains were shut down immediately and bottled water made available. Forrest Claypool, the school district CEO, told reporters earlier that the pilot testing would be expanded to include 250 schools by the end of the school year, with the rest to come later.

FORREST CLAYPOOL: And we will be testing every faucet and water fountain that a student or staff member could be using for drinking water or consuming food in preparation with that water.

CORLEY: Chicago's water department, like many others throughout the country, flushes a chemical called orthophosphate in the system. It adheres to pipes and prevents lead from leaching into the water. Chicago water commissioner Barrett Murphy says that works best if water runs through the pipes often.

BARRETT MURPHY: So one of the concerns, and why we're doing a diagnostic study at Tanner, is - we believe these are isolated to drinking fountains that were not in high use because other places that had high use did not have any detectable levels of lead.

CORLEY: That may be so, says Diana Greenhill (ph), who has a daughter in fourth grade at Tanner. But she's worried about any exposure to lead and how it may affect children at the school.

DIANA GREENHILL: Is it making them agitated because it messes with the neurological system? Does it promote anger? What is going on with the children?

CORLEY: Parent Sashanda Alexander (ph) is angry.

SASHANDA ALEXANDER: My oldest daughter graduated from here a year ago. And she ended up with lead. But when they tested my building, my building came up negative on the lead. So now that - I know that she got it from here.

CORLEY: And other parents worry if Tanner's water problems could be as dire as the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Chicago's health commissioner, Julie Morita, says lead-based paint - not water - is to blame for most instances of lead poisoning among children.

JULIE MORITA: So we are not Flint, Mich.

CORLEY: She answers - no evidence connecting elevated lead levels in Chicago to the city's water, which is drawn from Lake Michigan.

MORITA: I don't feel like we need to have water bottles and water coolers shipped to every Chicago public school. But I think it's reasonable to test and to reassure people that our water is safe.

CORLEY: The expanded test for lead at all of the city schools will bring either a new level of confidence or more concern. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.