No plans to retest for lead in Durham schools' water

Staff WritersJuly 29, 2006 

— Less than a month before students are to return, Durham Public Schools officials say there are no plans to retest the district's older buildings for lead in the drinking water.

Twenty-seven Durham schools were tested for lead in 2004 after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an advisory about problems at schools in Washington, D.C., a city that used a chemical process to treat its water similar to that used in Durham. Buildings considered most at risk were built before 1985, when a ban on the use of lead in plumbing solder took effect.

Samples at one aging East Durham facility, Y.E. Smith Elementary School, had 2004 readings of lead in its tap water as high as 661 times the level considered safe under federal guidelines. All water fountains at Y.E. Smith were disconnected, and staff and students there have been drinking bottled water.

However, recent testing at dozens of Durham homes suggests the risk of lead contamination could be higher now than it was two years ago due to the city's use of ferric chloride at one of its two treatment plants since 2003. It is suspected that over time, the city's use of the chemical ate away a protective coating that builds up in older plumbing to protect against the leaching of lead. The city ceased using ferric chloride July 6, though officials do not yet know whether that will fix the problem.

Althia Scriven, coordinator of health and safety programs for the Durham schools, said Tuesday that the district does not intend to perform any new testing unless directed to do so by the Durham County Health Department.

"At this point, we feel pretty comfortable with what we have done," Scriven said. "If there is something different that needs to be done, then we will do it."

The county Health Department raised the alarm about a potential problem with Durham's water in May after a young child was determined to have been poisoned by lead. Tests on the kitchen tap in the child's former apartment in South Durham found lead at 837 parts per billion -- nearly 60 times the federal safety limit of 15 parts per billion.

The case is the second in state history where a child was found to have been poisoned by tap water. Though potentially harmful to all humans, lead is especially toxic to young children and pregnant women, linked to developmental difficulties and brain damage.

City, county tests

Since May, the Health Department has sent at least 175 Durham tap water samples to a state lab in Raleigh to be tested for lead. So far, about one in five has come back with lead above the safety limit.

The city has tested another 106 household samples at its own lab and a private facility in Raleigh. At least 26 of the city's samples -- about one in four -- have had lead above the level considered safe. State and local officials have contended these 281 samples from homes scattered across the city are not sufficient to determine whether Durham has a broad problem because the sites tested were not selected at random.

County Health Director Brian Letourneau said extra manpower is being brought in to speed up a state-mandated study of 127 randomly selected Durham homes. The county will likely wait to see the results of this latest round of testing before determining whether it will recommend testing the schools again.

Meanwhile, the school district is still trying to figure out what to do about the lead at Y.E. Smith. Students drink bottled water, but tap water is still used for cooking in the school cafeteria. Kitchen staff are supposed to flush the tap for 10 minutes each morning before using the water to prepare food, a precaution shown to greatly lessen the amount of lead.

The district has tried to remedy the problem by replacing valve and pipe fittings and regrounding the school's electrical wiring away from the plumbing. Some studies have shown electrical wiring attached to the plumbing can create charges that can increase leaching of lead into the water.

But Scriven said none of those changes has reduced the lead in the school's water to drinkable levels. The district is awaiting the test results to decide whether it is going to have to replace the school's entire plumbing system, which is expected to cost several hundred thousand dollars.

Staff writer Michael Biesecker can be reached at 956-2421 or mbieseck@newsobserver.com.

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