Months ago, state inspectors found high levels of lead in water from a faucet in Anniston High School’s culinary arts classroom, according to Alabama Department of Environmental Management documents.
School officials say that sink — where testing showed lead levels 18 times the allowable limit — was quickly taken out of service and later replaced. But the Anniston High faucet is just one of 33 water fixtures statewide where high lead levels were found since Alabama began testing water in schools in 2017.
“The thing is, this is a proactive program,” said Lynn Battle, a spokeswoman for ADEM. “The school systems are taking positive action to find lead where it exists.”
Two years ago, ADEM announced a plan to test water in every school for lead, a response to growing concerns about contamination in drinking supplies in places such as Flint, Mich., which developed a contaminated-water crisis after the city changed its water supply.
Childhood exposure to lead can cause brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development and behavior problems among other effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On April 25, ADEM records show, inspectors hired by ADEM collected water samples from five water sources at Anniston High School. By May 1, according to ADEM documents, tests showed that water in a “cafeteria sink” contained 0.373 millgrams of lead per liter, more than 18 times the “action level” set by ADEM.
Ken Goble, head of maintenance for the school system, said the “cafeteria sink” mentioned in the reports was actually a little-used sink in the culinary arts classroom at Anniston High’s career tech center. The culinary arts class has in the past catered school events, including graduation ceremonies and prom – and at least once has sent cupcakes and muffins to the state Department of Education headquarters as Christmas gifts.
“It wasn’t used very often,” Goble said of the faucet where the lead was found. “I believe it was mostly a washing sink.”
Goble said the faucet in question had a brass fixture. Lead from brass fixtures, he said, can leach into water if the water is left standing in the fixture for too long.
“If you go to ADEM’s website, they recommend you run the water for at least two minutes even at home, if you’re using it for food preparation,” Goble said.
Goble said the school immediately stopped using the sink after the test result came in. School officials had the faucet replaced, he said, and the water was re-tested twice. Those tests showed lead levels below the ADEM limit. Goble said the sink is again being used and is safe.
Anti-lead activist Ruth Ann Norton said that even lead in a wash sink is unsafe, because kids may have cuts in their hands while washing in the sink. Drinking contaminated water would be far more harmful.
“Cooking with it is the worst,” said Norton, director of the Green and Health Homes Initiative, a Maryland-based nonprofit once known as the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. Norton said water can evaporate in cooking while leaving lead behind.
Norton said replacing fixtures would be the first thing any official should consider when confronted with lead coming from a single faucet.
“Brass and copper fixtures will lead to leaching,” she said.
The school posted the test results in a PDF file on the school system’s website, but there’s no evidence the school system sent out any other notification. Goble said he intends to post the results on bulletin boards around the school, and is waiting for clearance from ADEM to so do. He said he believed the results were posted online within recent weeks.
“It was put on the website,” superintendent Ray Hill said. “That’s our way of letting the public know.”
Hill wasn’t superintendent at the time the lead was found; he was hired later in May. Asked if he was confident the water at the school was safe, he said it will be tested yearly to make sure there are no contaminants.
Inspectors have found high lead levels in 32 other fixtures in schools across the state, according to an August ADEM report on the schools testing program. All those fixtures were repaired or put out of service, the report states. ADEM spokesman Jerome Hand confirmed that number Friday but said his office didn’t have a readily-available list of affected schools.
Testing reports for individual schools show no high-lead findings at any other schools in Calhoun County, which has five public school systems. Private schools weren’t part of the lead-testing program.
The Star found two other schools outside the county where ADEM reports seem to identify high levels of lead.
In November, a sink identified as “Rd Building across Room 212” at Cullman Middle school tested just above the ADEM limit. School officials took the sink out of service immediately and kept it out of service even after a re-test showed water below the lead limit, according to a November email to ADEM from Cullman City Schools staffer Hayden Faulk.
ADEM reports also show lead above “action” levels in two drinking fountains at the Chilton County Alternative School in September 2018. According to an ADEM report, the fountains were little-used because the students mostly drank bottled water, though the fountains were replaced.
Attempts to reach administrators at both Cullman City and Chilton County schools were unsuccessful Friday.
Norton, the nonprofit director, said schools and governments should take a systemic look at their plumbing systems to make sure they’ve replaced faucets and other fixtures that can create a lead problem.
Deeper fixes, such as replacing pipes, can be problematic, she said, because that work can stir up contaminants.