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School’s age a significant factor in lead levels

(Cathryn Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

More than 20 elementary schools across the Albuquerque Public Schools district had water sources with high levels of lead, according to testing done through a state program.

And experts say the age of these schools is a key factor in the levels of the toxic heavy metal.

Those 20-some elementaries do not include the district’s oldest schools because, experts suspect, the lead in those pipes would be gone by now. Nor are they the newest schools because regulations have been enacted in recent history to decrease lead levels in water.

Starting in April, the school district opted into lead level testing for water sources at 69 elementary schools. Hundreds and hundreds of samples were taken, and the testing showed that roughly 5% of over 800 samples from sinks and water fountains analyzed came back “actionable” per a threshold established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is 0.015 milligrams per liter.

APS officials said those water fixtures were banned from use following the test results. They were replaced and will remain marked off until acceptable lead levels are achieved.

Citing data from mid-June, Jill Turner, source water program manager at the New Mexico Environment Department, said final samples from 21 schools were at or above the limit. Two additional schools showed up with actionable hits in a preliminary batch of water samples, she said.

“We anticipate the final count for this sampling season will be 23 schools,” she said in an email to the Journal, although she noted that numbers still need to be verified and testing is not complete. (See the corresponding map for the locations of the schools.)

These schools are located throughout the city, ranging from the North Valley to the South Valley, including Alameda Elementary school to the north and Barcelona Elementary School in the southwest.

Bruce Thomson

Bruce Thomson, research professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico, who has been studying water for more than 40 years, said the schools’ age is more important than their geography.

“The water quality that the water utility provides is pretty uniform all around town. I would say rather than location it has to do with age,” Thomson said.

Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority spokesman David Morris reiterated on Friday that the problem is with the schools’ fixtures and not the water supply.

Lead solder use

The vast majority of the schools with water fixtures that have high lead levels were built between 1950 and 1984, with nearly half built in the 1950s, according to construction dates provided by APS. The school district did not provide information on renovations, including updates to plumbing, following such questions from the Journal.

The schools with the most number of samples that had actionable lead levels include Alameda Elementary School, which was built in 1954, Mary Ann Binford Elementary School, which was built in 1984, and Bellehaven Elementary School, which was built in 1966, according to the testing data from the Department of Health and the New Mexico Environment Department.

Only two of the schools tested with high lead levels were built before 1940, and it was at one sink each. Thompson said he believes that’s because the lead in the pipes at the oldest schools would have likely already made its way through the water source.

“Really old schools, inner city schools, were constructed some 70, 80 and 100 years ago in some cases. All the lead in those pipes that is going to leach probably already leached out,” he said.

The water expert noted that inner city schools are often the oldest since that’s where a city originates. But as the city expanded outward, schools were built farther away from the heart of Albuquerque, Thomson said.

“The reason they are on the margins is because, as Albuquerque grew, those were the schools that were built at that time period,” he said.

The second age factor is that all but one of the 23 schools with sinks that showed high levels were constructed before the EPA banned lead solder in the late 1980s, which Thomson speculates contributed to the results.

“EPA banned lead solder. It used to be they used copper pipes and they would solder the pipes every time there’s a fitting and they would use a lead solder,” he said.

Harmful effects

The EPA has said lead can be harmful to human health “even at low exposure levels,” according to its online information on lead in drinking water. The agency also says low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in a lower IQ, slowed growth and behavioral and learning problems.

In addition to the 23 schools, there were others in APS that had sinks and water fountains that contained lead, but they were at levels below the EPA threshold.

After the APS water testing, the New Mexico Department of Health has maintained there are minimal health risks for kids.

Still, bottled water is being brought in for summer sessions at several schools that had issues, including Matheson Park, Bellehaven and East San Jose elementaries.

Chief Operations Officer Scott Elder has said APS is continuing to retest the sinks with issues, and will test other sinks as funding becomes available.

Marc Edwards, civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech and one of the researchers that investigated lead levels in Flint, Michigan, agreed that age is going to be a factor when talking about lead in water.

He concurred that in general these older schools are going to run into issues because stricter guidance and rules on lead in plumbing has happened over time.

“With time, we have progressively reduced the amount of lead in the plumbing,” he said.

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