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Teacher: APS fixes for lead in water fall short

Molly Keyes, a teacher at Bellehaven Elementary School, says her classroom’s faucet and bubbler were prohibited from use following initial lead level testing in Albuquerque Public Schools. Months later, the teacher worries the problem isn’t really fixed and thinks her classroom was given a Band-Aid solution. (Courtesy of Molly Keyes)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Public Schools says problems with sinks and fountains that tested with high levels of lead in the water have been resolved, but a local APS teacher contends her classroom was given a Band-Aid solution.

On Tuesday, APS published an online newsletter titled “APS Remedies Elevated Lead Levels in Water” in response to results of voluntary testing at 69 elementaries built before 1990.

The district has said roughly 5% of the initial tests came back above acceptable levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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.

New Mexico Department of Health officials have maintained that health risks are minimal from drinking this water.

APS says it has since replaced or repaired problem water fixtures, saying this addressed the issue in most cases with retesting showing safer levels.

While the newsletter notes that some fixtures were designated to be used for handwashing only, it emphasized that the problem is largely remedied.

Molly Keyes, a first grade teacher at Bellehaven Elementary School, said the announcement isn’t telling the whole story.

“It made it seem like the water situation is just fixed, like they took care of it, it’s done, nothing to worry about. But I kind of feel like that’s not the whole truth,” she said.

Keyes said her classroom sink and others at the school were designated for handwashing only, which she doesn’t think gets to the root of the problem.

According to initial testing results, Bellehaven water sources had lead levels that far exceeded the federal threshold. In fact, several of the school’s sinks showed the highest lead levels among the tested samples in the district.

Andrew Roark, environmental manager at APS, said the district replaced problem faucets at Bellehaven and retested for lead, but some water sources still came back as high. That’s when usage of the sinks was limited to handwashing.

“Those retests still came back above the action level, so at that point the principal requested the sinks be handwashing only. That’s why we didn’t do further testing,” Roark told the Journal.

Keyes says that’s not really fixing the problem.

The way she sees it, the principal is doing everything she can, but she’s not the authority on lead levels in water.

“Pushing it on the principal is unfair. It’s not her job to decide that. It’s the district’s job to, and it doesn’t make any sense that they would move forward with that. If it’s actionable they should fix it,” she said.

Keyes said the principal has recommended against drinking from any of the building’s sinks.

“Now they only have a few designated areas around the school where it is OK to drink from and refill water bottles, and you can’t drink from the classroom sinks at all,” she told the Journal.

Keyes says there are five water fountains in Bellehaven that students can now drink from, with two of them having water bottle dispensers.

“On the second day of school, there was a line of three classes waiting to get water and refill water bottles at one of the water fountains,” she said.

To help curb classroom interruptions, Keyes has asked parents to send bottled water with their children. For those who can’t afford that option, the teacher is getting reusable bottles that can be filled before class or at lunch.

In an emailed comment, APS spokeswoman Johanna King said the teacher or others can contact the district with concerns.

“The (newsletter) notes that in most cases, we were able to address the problem by repairing, upgrading and replacing fixtures. In a few cases, the (newsletter) notes, we had to eliminate fixtures or designate them for handwashing only. These decisions were made in the best interest of students. Our goal, of course, is to keep students safe,” she said.

Keyes notes that students had been drinking from the school’s sinks for years.

“The fact that the kids were drinking water that was possibly tainted with lead for so very long makes me feel frustrated. It makes me feel as though maintenance of existing schools is a very low priority to APS,” she said.

APS posted lead level test results online for the first time on Tuesday at Initial testing began in April with subsequent retesting.

Keyes has spoken out about the water at Bellehaven before, chronicling a culture in which adults were apprehensive about drinking the school’s water but were assured it was safe for their students.

Now, she is still hoping to know exactly what is going on with the water at her school.

“It feels like a Band-Aid to say, ‘Don’t drink the water here but drink the water over there,’ ” she said.

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