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Staff worried before tests showed high lead levels

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

When Molly Keyes, a teacher at Bellehaven Elementary School, was given her first tour of the school, the principal at that time made it a point to warn her about the water.

“The water is not safe to drink. I would not recommend it,” Keyes said she was told.

Molly Keyes, a teacher at Bellehaven Elementary School, says access to her classroom’s faucet and bubbler was restricted following lead level testing at Albuquerque Public Schools. She says she’s “furious” testing took so long. For the two years she has been in that classroom, she has reported that kids have consistently been drinking from both the faucet and bubbler. ( Courtesy of Molly Keyes)

That was about three years ago.

“She didn’t even use that water in her fish tank,” Keyes said.

Filtered water was used for the fish.

Last week, Keyes learned that sinks at Bellehaven had lead levels far in excess of the federal threshold. In fact, several of the school’s sinks showed the highest lead levels among more than 800 Albuquerque Public Schools water samples tested by the state’s Department of Health and the Environment Department.

But Keyes has been concerned about the water quality at her school for several years.

And while state and school district officials have been stressing that the high lead levels were found at sinks vs. water fountains, Keyes emphasized that students have been drinking from the sink consistently for the two years she’s been in her classroom.

This year, APS opted into a state program to test water sources for lead levels at 69 elementary schools constructed before 1990 – including Bellehaven. The district said roughly 5% of the tests came back above the threshold established by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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. Others were at 0.9, 0.83 and 0.79, according to testing documents.

The Journal reported those lead levels in stories last week after obtaining the test results through a public-records request. APS and state officials held a news conference Wednesday to explain how the district was dealing with the issue and to stress that the levels posed little danger to students’ health.

APS Chief Operations Officer Scott Elder said most of the actionable water fixtures were sinks rather than water fountains. And most tests were also done in the morning to show peak lead levels, which would likely dilute throughout the day.

“The great majority of these samples that came back actionable were from sinks – not from drinking fountains, not from places where students would drink the water,” Elder said at the news conference.

He said all the water fixtures with elevated lead levels had been sealed off, replaced and retested, adding that those sinks would be kept off limits until acceptable levels were found.

Heidi Krapfl, deputy division director of programs for the epidemiology and response division under the Department of Health, previously told the Journal that the levels at Bellehaven weren’t a major concern, because the sinks tested weren’t the primary water source.

“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,” she said.

Keyes, the Bellehaven teacher, told the Journal her students have been consistently drinking from both a bubbler and faucet from a sink in the classroom for the two years she’s been in the space.

“Kids would bring their own water bottles, and they’ll fill it out at the faucet,” she said.

The faucet and bubbler were blocked off following the lead testing.

Keyes was so concerned about the water she submitted a letter to the Journal outlining her experience at the school; the letter appears on page A-11 today.

Krapfl said Friday the department still thinks there are minimal health risks even if students had consistent access to this water.

“There are multiple factors. How much water does the child drink each day, when they drink it, because that determines if the water was flushed out, the child’s weight, which determines their blood volume,” she said.

But if parents are still concerned, they could have a blood lead test done, she said. Though Krapfl cautioned that the test, which would reflect exposure that has occurred within a month, would reflect lead from multiple sources, including paint, soil and pottery, not solely from water.

Elder, too, cautioned against fear.

“We really are working under the guidance of Department of Health and the New Mexico Environment Department, so that people know we are doing everything we can do to keep them safe. I think caution is good, but I don’t know they need to be fearful,” he said Friday.

Keyes said Bellehaven teachers, who often brought in Brita pitchers to filter the water, were adverse to drinking the water themselves.

“I was assured by teachers that it was deemed safe for the kids, but then they would say, ‘I won’t drink it,’ ” she said. “It was a weird culture about the water.”

She also described some of the school’s water as an orange-brown. Elder said that is a separate issue caused by galvanized piping that the district is also working on.

Keyes had decided in September to stop drinking the classroom water, opting to go to the teacher’s lounge, which she was told had newer plumbing than other parts of the school.

Because of the concerns at the school, Keyes was glad the testing was done.

“I was furious that it had taken so long,” she said. “But I was relieved that finally something was happening.”

However, she was “disappointed” that staff wasn’t consulted when the testing occurred. She said teachers could have informed the water testers where kids were actually getting drinking water from.

“They didn’t talk to teachers. They just looked at random sinks,” she said.

Elder said the goal was to have a random sample to be representative of the school’s water fixtures and said more testing will be done as funding becomes available.

Ultimately, Keyes said that testing confirmed what teachers at Bellehaven have assumed for a while. There were issues with the water.

“But we thought if the district didn’t fix it for the kids, it must be fine,” she said.

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