School district officials haven't been concerned about lead concentrations in drinking fountains and water coolers, but according to an Environmental Protection Agency engineer, recent inquiries show there is reason to be concerned.
"It is extremely important for schools to test their water because children are more vulnerable to lead and absorb it at a higher rate," said Peter Lassovsky, an environmental engineer for the EPA Office of Drinking Water in Washington. "Not necessarily do all schools have high lead levels, but you can only find out if you test."EPA studies show that children run the highest risk of growth damage and intelligence impairment from lead contamination. Lead also poses a risk for pregnant wom-en and for fetuses and causes hypertension in middle-aged men.
In the past, the EPA has required random water sampling of single-family homes, but water sampling in buildings has not been recommended by the EPA until recently, Lassovsky said.
The suggested sampling procedures to determine lead concentrations in buildings will be released sometime this month to provide guidance for owners of buildings, he said.
The sample is taken from a fountain or tap that has not been used for six hours, Lassovsky said. This gives the sampler an idea of the worst exposure they could get from the specified water source.
Testing is done after water sits because the highest lead concentrations are found in stagnant water, said Melanie Abell, an environmental scientist for the EPA Drinking Water Program in Denver. The more the fountain is used throughout the day, the lower the lead level.
The EPA will provide follow-up samples so that building owners can determine the source of contamination once lead is detected. Guidance will be offered to help owners evaluate potential remedies, Lassovsky said.
The EPA is also preparing a booklet to deal with the problem of lead in school drinking water. It will contain an explanation of the effects of lead and provide the superintendent or principal with some guidance so that they can determine if the school's drinking water is vulnerable to lead contamination, Lassovsky said. The booklet will be published later this summer.
"I guess there could be a problem (in schools) if there was a lot of lead-containing solder in water coolers and fountains," said Glade Shelley, supervisor of Environmental Health for City/County Health Department of Utah County.
County school districts have an annual building and food inspection, but the City/County Health Department has never inspected the water faucets or fountains, he said.
"There is a possibility we may, but we haven't heard anything from the EPA or state, and we will not do anything until we are asked to do so," Shelley said.
Jim Bergera, superintendent of Provo Schools, said, "If there is a concern about it, we probably ought to have the fountains examined."
According to Max Thorne, department head of maintenance for Alpine School District, the school district hasn't tested water in school buildings because it hasn't been a requirement. "We'd test it if we felt like there was a hazardous situation, but we haven't received any word (from the EPA or state) that it is a problem in schools."
Because the schools in the Nebo District all are within city limits, "we've just assumed the city tested the water and found it safe," said Phillip Argyle, the district's director of operations.
The state health department requires water utilities to routinely test their water at the well or spring, but they are not required to test specific water sources, said Ken Bousfild, manager of the State Health Department Compliance Program in the Bureau of Drinking Water Sanitation.
"We have not zeroed in on drinking fountains or water coolers because there are so many different manufacturers," he said. "That is left up to the EPA."
He said all water utilities have been within the acceptable drinking water standard of 50 parts per billion (ppb, or micrograms per liter) for lead content.
That measurement can be put in perspective by comparing 50 ppb to 1 inch in about 3,000 miles, Shelley said. It is actually equal to 50 pounds of lead dissolved in 1 billion pounds of water.
"Right now anything over 50 ppb is detrimental to your health," he said. "Some say 5 ppb could be too. The EPA standard will definitely come down."
According to Lassovsky, the EPA is revising its ppb regulation to 20 ppb as the non-enforceable health code at the consumer's tap. A new standard for water leaving the treatment plant will also be lowered to 5 ppb.
"This is low because we find that lead levels do not occur in source waters and usually come as a result of corrosion in plumbing," he said.
Lassovsky said if lead in drinking water is more than 20 ppb, owners should do additional sampling within the building to find out where the source is. "If there is more than 50 ppb, I would shut down the water source and not use it until I did follow up samples and had remedy action taken."
This is not a requirement and is only a guide for those people who manage buildings, he said. Lassovsky added that the potential for lead contamination could be high in some areas where there are freshly soldered pipes or lead-soldered joints.
Upon request, the state has done some testing for home owners and to date has found all homes to be in compliance with the EPA standard.
Of the homes tested in Alpine, Highland, Pleasant Grove, Orem and Provo, only one home in Orem showed a higher lead content in the stagnant water than in the fresh water, Shelley said.
Those interested in finding out more information about lead concentrations in drinking water can call the Safe Drinking Water Act Hotline at 1-800-426-4791 or write the EPA Office of Drinking Water, 401 M St. S.W., Washington, DC 20460.
According to Lassovsky, schools in Minnesota and Maryland have already tested their drinking water for high lead concentration.