Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
A Journal review of more than 800 water samples from Albuquerque Public Schools revealed that several schools’ sinks had lead levels well over a threshold established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
One school stood out with multiple sinks that far exceeded the EPA’s accepted level. In fact, one sink at Bellehaven Elementary School tested at 0.97 milligrams per liter – nearly 65 times higher than the EPA threshold of 0.015 milligrams per liter.
“Drinking occasionally from that, this is not a concern, we would be much more concerned if this was the primary drinking source every single day,” said Heidi Krapfl, deputy division director of programs for the epidemiology and response division under the Department of Health.
Bellehaven, which is located at 8701 Princess Jeanne Ave. NE, had at least five sinks with elevated lead levels, according to tests done by the New Mexico Department of Health in partnership with the New Mexico Environment Department.
A separate classroom sink at Bellehaven was at 0.9 and another at 0.83, the documents show.
There were water fixtures at East San Jose Elementary School that also had high levels relative to the .015 threshold.
One sample came back at 0.45 and another at 0.25, according to the documents.
On Wednesday, Jill Turner, source water program manager at the New Mexico Environment Department, said that 18 APS schools had actionable levels, citing numbers reported as of late May. Among them were Alameda Elementary School, Mary Ann Binford Elementary School and Barcelona Elementary School, according to the documents.
The 800-plus water samples were obtained by the Journal through an Inspection of Public Records Act request. APS held a news conference Wednesday to discuss the lead-level testing and APS’ response, but did not go into details about specific samples.
All water fixtures with high levels were shut down until the problems were addressed and new testing showed low levels.
On Wednesday, the Journal sent Bruce Thomson, research professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico, results for some of the highest samples.
“I would be pretty concerned at any level above about 0.05 mg/L and would be alarmed at concentrations greater than 0.1 mg/L,” he wrote to the Journal in an email.
He particularly highlighted the sinks at Bellehaven, saying the data indicates “something is really wrong there.”
But Krapfl noted kids aren’t typically drinking from classroom sinks and said even if some of the water was ingested, it’s a “low risk” for any health effects.
“The probability of having elevated blood level is pretty low,” she 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.
APS Chief Operations Officer Scott Elder said the process is the same for addressing any sink with levels above the 0.015 level.
“Our process is such that when we send the results in and we get a result back that is actionable, we automatically within 24 to 48 hours change the fixture out. That fixture is turned off or removed from use in some way. We then replace that fixture,” he said at a news conference on Wednesday.
He said nobody uses that sink until a clean sample is achieved. He said retesting is ongoing and the district is still waiting for all those results.
Elder emphasized the water sources that were primarily flagged for the lead levels were sinks and not water fountains.
Krapfl noted that tests are done at the beginning of the day to show peak lead levels, saying the lead levels are projected to get lower as the day goes on and the water is circulated in the plumbing.
In general, she said the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends any child under the age of 6 should be tested for blood lead levels at least once. And the DOH tracks that data in the events of trends, she said.
She said parents can always talk to their doctor if they are still concerned.
Turner from the New Mexico Environment Department said results such at Bellehaven or East San Jose are often seen at older schools.
“In general, my understanding is that a lot of these are coming from much older schools, which is not a surprise at all,” she said about water fixtures with higher lead levels.
According to the APS’ website, Bellehaven was established in 1966 and East San Jose was established in 1958.
Turner noted that while some schools may have been revamped, renovations do not always include upgrades to pipes and water fixtures.
And she added that there is still more information that can be collected such as whether students are drinking water from sinks.
“We don’t really know if it’s actually getting used or not and how often. Do kids take one sip of water? There are so many variables that go into that,” she said.
APS had the water at 69 elementary schools built before 1990 tested through a voluntary state program. Elder said the goal was to be proactive.
Capitan Municipal Schools and Los Alamos Public Schools also opted in.
Turner said Capitan had five water sources that were above the 0.015 action level and Los Alamos – which Turner said has fairly new infrastructure – had “very few hits” and the highest hit was at 0.017.
Journal staff writers Katy Barnitz and Theresa Davis contributed to this report.