Faucets likely source of lead in Yarmouth school water

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YARMOUTH — Superintendent of Schools Andrew Dolloff will discuss the high levels of lead found in school drinking water at Thursday night’s School Committee meeting.

Dolloff on Aug. 30 informed parents of the high lead levels found in water at Yarmouth Elementary School and Frank Harrison Middle School.

Of the 50 faucets and water bubblers tested, five at HMS and 13 at YES had lead levels exceeding 15 parts per billion, which is the safety standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The School Committee discussion comes at the same time state Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, is introducing legislation requiring schools to test for lead in water.

Millett, in a press release Tuesday, said it’s unacceptable for lead to be in school water.

“All Maine children should be able to safely drink water at school without fear of elevated lead levels, which can impair brain development,” she said. “We know that no lead level is safe, especially for children during their developing years, and we should be checking that our schools’ water is OK for them to drink.”

In Maine, schools that use public water systems aren’t required to test for lead. Dolloff said he’s unsure of when Yarmouth last tested its water.

“We don’t have any indication that it’s been tested in the last 25 years,” he said. “It’s been quite some time.”

Millett’s bill would require schools that are more than 10 years old and use public water systems to test for lead every three years.

Yarmouth tested its water this year because Dolloff requested the measure.

“There was no event or situation that caused us to test the water, but I always think it’s a good idea to test people’s drinking water,” he said.

Dr. Emily Lesher, of the Trace Element Lab at Saint Joseph’s College, performed the Yarmouth tests at no cost. Most of the water had low levels of lead, which means the lead isn’t in the water, it’s in the faucets, Dolloff said.

While most of the faucets and water bubblers had low levels of lead and copper, some lead levels were much higher than 15 ppb. Two faucets at HMS had levels of 42.1 ppb and 46.3 ppb, respectively. At YES, there were faucets with levels of 64.6 ppb, 53.3 ppb, 50.4 ppb, as well as others that measured in the 40s.

No water bubblers at HMS had high levels of lead, but at YES, there were bubblers that measured at 24.2 ppb and 22 ppb. Five-gallon bottled water dispensers were placed in YES classrooms and other areas of the school to provide drinking water.

“With so many of our faucets testing fine, it’s clearly not a problem with the water,” Dolloff said. “It’s pretty clear that it’s a problem with the faucet.”

Dolloff said the faucets with the highest lead levels are being replaced. The new faucets will be retested, and if they pass, all the other faucets and bubblers with high levels will be replaced as well. Then all the faucets and bubblers will be tested again.

The work will take a couple of months to complete, Dolloff said. The tests will cost “a few thousand dollars,” he said, as will replacing the faucets.

In October, Yarmouth High School and the William H. Rowe School will be tested too, as a precaution, Dolloff said. They weren’t tested originally because the faucets aren’t as old as the ones at YES and HMS.

Dolloff said he planned to share all the information he has with the School Committee on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Log Cabin, where he will also take questions from residents.

Millett’s announcement said old faucets are a common reason for high lead levels.

“While the water may be safe for most users of that water supply, old plumbing in schools can leach lead and copper into otherwise clean water,” her press release stated.

When school started on Tuesday, Dolloff said many children brought their own water bottles to school. He said teachers also informed them of the situation.

Some parents who picked up their children at YES on Tuesday afternoon weren’t too concerned with the results of the lead tests.

“I feel like it was well-researched,” Jackie Schumcher, a parent of a second grader at YES and fifth-grader at HMS, said. “I trust (the School Department). I’m sure they have proper signage in place.”

Camilla Shannon said she’s “glad they’re testing it,” but is taking precautions to protect her third-grader.

“I’m sending my daughter to school with a water bottle,” she said.

YES Principal Betsy Lane said she hasn’t received any phone calls about the issue, and Dolloff said HMS Principal Joan Adler hasn’t either. Dolloff said he’s only been contacted by two parents. One wanted to know the reason the testing was done and the other wanted to know the exact test results.

“It appears people are comfortable with the approach we’ve taken,” Dolloff said. “I thought there might have been more of a response, but I’m happy people are focusing more on the solution.”

Parent Jana Billings said she’s impressed with how Dolloff and the district have handled the situation.

“I think it’s something that needs the immediate attention it’s getting,” she said. “We’re happy with how the schools are handling it and we hope it’s resolved quickly.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Following reports of high lead levels in school water, many children at Yarmouth Elementary School brought water bottles with them Tuesday, Sept. 6, on the first day of classes.

Five-gallon water dispensers have been placed in classrooms at Yarmouth Elementary School and Frank Harrison Middle School after high levels of lead were found in school water.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.