DeKALB – In DeKalb and Sycamore, school districts are taking precautions after state-mandated water testing revealed some of the fixtures in their schools were above both the reportable and actionable levels of lead. Although most of the affected fixtures were sinks, there were some drinking fountains in DeKalb buildings that were affected, as well.
In January 2017, the Illinois General Assembly passed, with almost universal support, Senate Bill 0550, which mandated testing of school plumbing across the state. The tests were to measure the amount of lead in the water.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Tammy Carlson, director of facility operations at DeKalb School District 428. “You go through the worst-case scenarios.”
After testing was completed this year, it was found that some schools in District 428 were in the clear, but others had lead problems.
DeKalb schools were the ones with the highest lead levels in the county and had the most affected fixtures throughout their buildings. It also has the most schools and largest student population.
Some districts, such as Genoa-Kingston and Hinckley-Big Rock, had no fixtures test above 5 parts per billion.
The law requires every school building built before 1987, as well as all state-funded day care centers, to be tested. The state required schools to test for lead because the effects of lead poisoning are more pronounced in children and can lead to developmental delays and learning difficulty, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The law requires that any amount of lead more than 5 ppb be reported to parents. But although it mandated testing and reporting, it didn’t give direction on how to proceed, or at what level it was necessary to take action.
There is no federal guideline, either, about when action needs to be taken on lead in water systems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website that there is no safe level of lead in the blood of children.
The Environmental Protection Agency lists 15 ppb as the threshold when a public water system needs to take action, but doesn’t state why it chose that level or whether every system should follow that standard.
In DeKalb schools, nearly 200 faucets and fixtures were found to have some level of lead in the water. Schools have been operating on
20 ppb as the actionable level, but some of the DeKalb sinks were four or five times that level. One sink at Jefferson Elementary tested at 1,480 ppb.
Only the high school – which opened in 2011 – and the education center had no fixtures test positive for any amount of lead. Most of the positive tests were first draw, meaning the water had not been run for at least eight hours but not more than 18 hours, and only two were in drinking fountains in Huntley Middle School. The rest were in sinks across the buildings.
“We converted them to hand washing-only sinks,” Carlson said.
She said they placed signage at the sinks to inform students and staff members to not drink the water in the sinks, and some fixtures were shut off.
District 428 is going to do retest the water sources Friday, after which those fountains might be turned back on, depending on the results.
“The law doesn’t give direction,” Carlson said. “Just test and, if it’s over 5 ppb, tell the families.”
Sycamore School District 427 is taking a similar approach. In response to its lead testing results, District 427 shut off fountains and converted sinks into hand-washing sinks. After retesting, none of the fixtures tested were over 20 ppb, although several had trace amounts.
“What we’ve been doing since the results, we’ve been flushing those fixtures on a daily basis,” said Nicole Stuckert, chief financial officer at the District 427.
Drinking water still is available in each building, as well through special fountains.
“We do have reverse-osmosis drinking fountains in all of our elementary schools,” Stuckert said.
Down the road, Stuckert said, District 427 will look at replacing sinks with higher levels.
“The EPA really wants you to have a water management plan,” she said.
The district plans on retesting the fixtures with trace amounts of lead in April.
“A lot of the ones with traceable amounts just don’t get used very often,” Stuckert said.