SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 80 percent of Utah's school districts are participating in a voluntary sampling effort to detect lead in drinking water, but some are not sharing results with the state or are ignoring requests for information.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality rolled out the voluntary initiative earlier this year hoping to get an overall assessment of the extent of lead contamination, if any, in drinking water at public schools.
To date, 1,088 sample results have been forwarded to the state representing 27 school districts, or 65 percent of the districts and 484 schools.
Marie Owens, director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water, said 78 percent of Utah school districts have either already submitted results or indicated that they will.
Owens said she has not seen results from these districts: Provo, Alpine, Canyons, Morgan, Juab, Carbon, South Sanpete, Millard, Rich, Logan, Beaver, Garfield, Iron and Kane.
"There are nine school districts that have not taken samples, two that have taken samples but say they will not share results, and three districts that say they have taken samples but we have not seen them," she said.
Lead is a toxin harmful to everyone but it can especially cause serious health problems for children. In the samples collected so far, Owens said just 2 percent showed levels for lead above the "action" level by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and in most cases, the problem was addressed with a relatively simple fix.
"Clearly there is not a widespread problem of lead in the drinking water in schools in Utah, but there are pockets," she said. "We're finding the individual circumstances can be easily mitigated by changing out a faucet."
The state posted results on a public database that shows 20 samples above the "action" limit and how the school responded.
Owens said there have been concerns from school districts about causing public alarm and some resistance to sampling.
"We really don't have a mechanism to force them into it," she said. "I am actually surprised that we have had as much participation as we have gotten on a voluntary initiative."
Both Provo and Canyons school districts declined to share sampling results with the state. Owens said Provo sent a letter indicating drinking water was clear of lead contamination, while Canyons is developing a way to include the information on its website.
Provo City School District spokesman Caleb Price said they initiated districtwide testing of drinking water in all schools and other district buildings last year, with one test in a district building that came back "borderline."
Price said the plumbing equipment was replaced.
The district notified the state of its efforts and it did not see the need for another round of more testing, he added. "There was no need to resample when we had just done that."
Canyons School District spokesman Jeff Haney said it has been testing for lead in all schools and district facilities for two years.
"We're very aware of the concern the public would have about the quality of water in schools and we take it very seriously," he said.
The district has not made schoolwide sampling results available in a central location, but people can ask for specific school tests, he said. District officials plan to have the information on lead sampling results on its website within a couple of weeks.
Haney said kitchen sinks at two schools tested for lead requiring action. Those sinks were immediately shut down and repaired.
Owens said she did not initiate the voluntary lead testing program with the intent of creating new regulatory authority, but rather to get an assessment on potential lead contamination in schools' drinking water.
"We don't have direct authority over schools," she said, noting that there are gaps in the regulatory landscape.
"If we move forward with some sort of policy for ongoing sampling, we need to determine who is going to be responsible for making sure we are sampling and collecting data."
She said it's been difficult to determine what level of scrutiny, for example, is playing out in the southwest corner of the state. Multiple school districts there have been unresponsive to the state requests, despite a letter from the agency urging participation.
In contrast, Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah districts have been testing for lead in school drinking water for 10 years as part of a requirement by the Tri County Health Department.
"As I have gone around the state and talked to people, Tri County is on top of it," Owens said.
On the heels of the Flint, Michigan, crisis, lead contamination in schools' drinking water is fueling scandals and big expenditures in other parts of the country.
Last year in Oregon, the State Board of Education adopted new rules on lead testing in schools, including a mandate for public disclosure within five days of receiving the results.
Portland Public Schools, the state's largest district, shut off its drinking water in the summer months after the revelation that the district had kept quiet about high levels of lead in the drinking water and falsely assured parents the water was safe.
Safety upgrades at schools throughout the Oregon district will cost around $28 million and three years to complete.
This week, fountains in three San Francisco schools were shut off after they sampled high for lead.
California, like Utah, launched a voluntary program at EPA's urging.1 comment on this story
Although the EPA regulates public water suppliers, requiring testing to determine if the water system needs treatment, there is no federal law mandating testing of schools or child care facilities. The "action" limit is 15 micrograms of lead per liter or above.
Owens said there is a 2014 law that requires the reduction of lead or other materials in faucets that can leach through piping systems.
Faucets manufactured before then, however, could be in district storage or on the shelves at stores, she noted.
Young children are particularly vulnerable to lead because their bodies absorb it four to five times the rate of adults. It is odorless, colorless and tasteless.