Elevated lead levels found at some APS schools

(Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/For The Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Varying levels of lead were found in the water at many Albuquerque Public Schools elementaries – levels one local expert says are a “concern but not a crisis,” according to documents recently obtained by the Journal.

The documents, turned over in response to an Inspection of Public Records Act request, reveal that APS submitted samples from 69 schools beginning in April, and began receiving results early last month, according to an APS official. Both sinks and water fountains were tested.

The district said it has been working to address the results since.

The lead testing, done by the New Mexico Department of Health in partnership with the state Environment Department, showed some of the schools’ fountains and sinks had lead levels that were above a threshold established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is 0.015 milligrams per liter.

APS Chief Operations Officer Scott Elder said about 5% of the more than 800 sinks and water fountains tested were above that threshold.

APS sent a note to parents about the testing results Tuesday, a day after the Journal started asking questions about the documents.

Also on Tuesday, APS said it has scheduled a news conference for today on the issue.

Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority spokesman David Morris said the problem is with the fixtures and not the water supply.

“This is an issue with the plumbing in the schools and not the water in the public distribution system,” Morris said, adding that the water in the system before entering the schools was within federal standards. “Our water came back clean,” he said.

Lead is of concern to public health officials because, according to the EPA, lead in the blood of children can result in behavioral and learning problems, lower IQ and slowed growth, among other health risks.

The Journal is reviewing the documents, which consist of hundreds of pages of information detailing lead levels at the hundreds of faucets and water fountains at the schools.

APS spokeswoman Johanna King said parents weren’t notified immediately because of short staffing and the district’s desire to wait for more details.

The state offered the testing program for school districts, and APS opted in. The 69 schools tested were elementaries built before 1990.

Elder said the testing is not just school by school but also faucet by faucet.

“There is no school with every water source is unusable. It’s the occasional fixture,” he said, adding that primarily sinks rather than water fountains were flagged.

In instances of elevated lead levels, he said, the faucets or fixtures were replaced and the locations were retested.

“Within 24 to 48 hours, we replaced that fixture. In the interim, nobody was allowed to utilize it, and still nobody is allowed to until we get a second test back that shows they are safe,” Elder said.

He did not have a cost estimate for the replacements.

Elder said APS is waiting for all of the retest results to come back.

He said that if the water lead levels still come back above 0.015 after the fixture replacements, then APS will analyze the feed lines and replace them as needed. Elder said that at worst, use of a particular sink or fountain would be prohibited.

Bruce Thomson, research professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico, has been studying water for more than 40 years.

He emphasized the importance of APS addressing water sources that were above 0.015 milligrams per liter but also stressed that people shouldn’t be alarmed.

“It’s a concern, but not a crisis, in my opinion,” he said after looking at some of the results sent to him by the Journal.

He said the reason water sources above 0.015 need to be addressed is to avoid any future health risks.

“They need to take corrective measures,” he said.

Thomson said he believes children are currently safe but said the goal in addressing these is to minimize chronic exposure and to avoid long-term effects.

“You worry about the chronic exposure,” he said. “One-time exposure at this (level) is not going to cause problems.”

Matt Kadish, a pediatrician with the University of New Mexico Hospital, noted there is no safe level of lead exposure for kids. The EPA also says there is no safe level.

But he said that in general, lead affecting children isn’t a “major issue” in New Mexico, pointing in particular to monitoring done by the Health Department.

“By and large in New Mexico, it’s not a significant issue,” he said.

He added that if parents are concerned they should talk to their doctor and blood tests can be done.

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