Forty water sources at Janesville elementary schools had higher lead levels than those recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during recent tests.
And while experts interviewed by The Gazette agreed that no amount of lead is good for children, the risks presented by the questionable water sources were not significant, they said.
The Janesville School District tested for lead after the Rock County Health Department conducted its own sampling at 19 elementary schools and Head Start programs throughout the county.
Since the testing, the schools have addressed the problems by installing new fixtures on the questionable water sources or tagging them as unusable.
The Gazette asked local officials why the testing was done and what, if any, health implications it might have.
Q: Why did the Rock County Health Department test for lead in schools?
In 2017, the health department received a $10,000 grant from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said Rick Wietersen, Rock County environmental health director.
At an April 4 Rock County Board of Health meeting, Wietersen said his staff wanted to look for lead in school water sources because lead is commonly found in older plumbing fixtures and pipes.
Young children are more at risk when exposed to lead because their brains and bodies are still developing.
Weitersen told The Gazette that Madison and Milwaukee both had lead issues in their schools, and that also prompted him to pursue testing.
Q: Is lead testing required in schools?
Lead testing is not required in schools, Weitersen said.
The city of Janesville tests its water for a variety of contaminants, including lead, nickel, copper, nitrates and chromium. In 2017, the city took 32 samples from its wells and found none exceeded the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion, according to a Janesville Water Utility consumer confidence report.
In addition, no requirements exist for lead testing in preschools.
“There is no performance standard,” said Carol Mischer, executive director of Rock-Walworth Comprehensive Family Services, the organization that runs Head Start and Early Head Start in the two counties.
It’s common for pediatricians to test for lead levels in young children, and Head Start staff encourages parents to request that testing.
Q: What were the results of the health department’s testing?
The health department offered testing to all 49 elementary schools and Head Start programs in Rock County. Of those, 19 volunteered for testing.
In an email to The Gazette, Wietersen stressed that the schools that volunteered were “really being very proactive.”
Q: What did the tests find?
Six to 16 locations were tested in each school, including water fountains, classroom sinks, bathrooms, kitchens and nurses’ offices.
Overall, 13 of the 19 schools had at least one water source with elevated lead levels.
To put it another way, out of 192 samples, 24 showed elevated lead levels.
Four of those samples exceeded 100 parts per billion. The EPA urges caution at 15 parts per billion and recommends that schools take action when the level is 20 or more parts per billion.
The health department used 15 parts per billion as its “action level,” Wietersen said.
Schools tested included Head Start locations in Janesville and Beloit, seven Janesville elementary schools, five Beloit elementary schools and five parochial schools.
Q: How did the health department follow up?
Health department staff ers performed a second round of testing for sources with elevated lead levels. They also tested each water source after a 30-second flush of water.
In most cases, the flush resulted in results that were below the 15 parts per billion action level.
Those results mean that the problem was in the fixtures, not the pipes, Wietersen said.
Q: How did the schools follow up?
Schools turned off the water to the water sources in question or tagged them as unusable.
At St. William School in Janesville, three water sources had lead levels of more than 15 parts per billion. Two of those had more than 20 parts per billion.
The school decided to err on the side of caution, Principal Diane Rebout said.
One sink is being removed as part of a remodeling project, and the fixtures were changed on the other two sinks.
The Janesville School District decided to test the water sources at 11 of its 12 elementary schools. The results revealed that eight of the schools had water sources with elevated lead levels.
Kennedy Elementary School was not tested because it was built after laws were enacted prohibiting the use of lead in plumbing systems.
Lead levels in Janesville School District schools ranged from 15 parts per billion to 400 parts per billion. Higher scores came from sinks that had not been used in a long time, district maintenance manager Dave Leeder said at the time.
When water sits in pipes and fixtures, the “first draw” of water tends to be very high in lead, Leeder said.
The district shut off or tagged the fountains in question. Since that time, fixtures have been changed.
Two other school systems also decided to test all of their water sources, Wietersen said.
Q: Should parents be concerned about potential health effects?
Experts agree: No amount of lead is good for children.
That said, lead is more likely to be a problem for children ages 5 and younger, said Dr. Dan Beardmore, a pediatrician at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville.
“Toddlers are more at risk,” Beardmore said. “The younger the children are, the more immature their bodies are, the more likely they are to be affected.”
Lead is a neurotoxin, and when children are very young, even low levels of lead can lower IQ levels and cause other damage, he said.
Are elevated lead levels dangerous for elementary school children?
“I don’t know that there’s a good answer to that question,” Beardmore said. “As a pediatrician, I would say that no level of lead is safe. If I was a parent, I wouldn’t worry a whole lot about it.”
The age of the children involved and the amount of water they consume from the fountains or sinks in question makes it unlikely lead will be a significant health issue, he said.
Pediatricians often ask the parents of young children about the age of their homes to see if lead presents a danger, he said. Testing for blood lead levels in small children is routine.
In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for new federal standards defining and testing for lead hazards in house dust, water and soil.
It also called for “legal requirements ... to ensure that water fountains in schools do not exceed water lead concentrations of more than 1 part per billion.”
But both Beardmore and Wietersen agree that lead paint is a much more significant risk factor than water sources.
Wietersen hopes to use part of the state grant money to remind people of the lead paint risk. He also wants to remind people whose homes were built before 1986—and especially before the 1930s—that they should assume they have lead in their water.
They can minimize their risk by flushing their pipes for a minute or two before consuming the water, replacing older plumbing and fixtures, and considering lead treatment advice, Wietersen said.
“If your home is older than 1978, you have a risk of children being exposed to lead paint,” Wietersen said. “We recommend children 6 years or younger be tested for blood lead levels.”