Lead in the pipes

Jerry Foreman from the South Whidbey School District’s transportation department was busy Thursday delivering bottles of fresh water and dispensers to three of the district’s schools. Lead was discovered at six of 10 sites tested recently. - Gayle Saran
Jerry Foreman from the South Whidbey School District’s transportation department was busy Thursday delivering bottles of fresh water and dispensers to three of the district’s schools. Lead was discovered at six of 10 sites tested recently.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Lead has been discovered in the water at three South Whidbey schools.

School district officials announced Thursday that traces of lead in excess of state standards was discovered in water through routine tests at three of its five schools.

The metal was found to be contaminating water at selected sites at three of the districts schools — the primary and intermediate schools and South Whidbey High School — through routine testing. Ten sites were tested, including kitchen taps, health rooms and several classrooms; six of those tested above the acceptable level set by the Washington State Department of Health.

Langley Middle School is on the Langley water system and was not tested. District Superintendent Bob Brown said the water at the school will be tested within the next week.

The Washington State Department of Health requires action when lead concentrations exceed 0.015 milligrams per liter.

The district’s highest lead concentrations are at the high school kitchen with .0820 million milligrams per liter and in Room 212 with .0570 million milligrams per liter.

District officials took action Thursday, turning off water to drinking fountains and delivering gallons of bottled water and dispensers to the three schools. As a precaution, by Monday all of the district’s buildings — including Bayview School, Whidbey Island Academy, Middle School and the Early Childhood and Planning building and the Family Resource Center — were receiving bottled water.

Bottled water will be supplied for food preparation and drinking purposes. Staff will continue using water from the taps for cleaning and dishwashing.

Brown estimates the district will spend about $2,000 a month for bottled water.

Officials from the Island County Health Department were in the school district’s office Thursday, meeting with Superintendent Brown about the lead problem. Tim McDonald, director of the health department said the “actions taken by the district are laudable.”

“They are committed to a long term play to address the problem,” McDonald said.

McDonald said the source of the district water, a well on Maxwelton, is not contaminated. Lead leaches into the water from other sources, such as plumbing and fixtures.

Those fixtures are the first target in the district’s effort to reduce lead contamination.

“The next few weeks we will be replacing fountain heads and faucets and continue testing until the problem is solved,” Superintendent Brown said.

The district will use capital projects funds will be used if pipes need to be replaced.

John Willson, the school district’s acting transportation and maintenance supervisor, said that over the next several days and weeks, parents can expect the school district will take positive steps—everything from providing drinking water to replacing plumbing fixtures with lead-free faucets.

The district was informed of the contamination following an annual test by an independent lab. The water testing is performed every fall.

According to Superintendent Brown, the district immediately called for a second test of the same sites after the initial testing, and asked that the results of the retest be made available within five days. Brown said the district received those results last week. According to the report issued by the lab, the first sample collection was on Sept. 14

Brown said results of the 2002 and 2003 tests are not currently available.

Although lead poses a health risk and exposure can cause serious damage to the nervous system, toxicity from lead in water is rare.

According to Tim McDonald, the highest health risk associated with lead come from consuming lead paint chips, using lead-based pottery, and consuming some Mexican candy and medicines recently found to contain high levels of the metal.

At the other end of the spectrum, the danger of any particular child being harmed by low-level lead exposure in school drinking water is extremely low.

McDonald said his office will be assisting the district as it makes more bottled water available, performs more tests, replaces old plumbing and develops an engineering plan to make the source water less corrosive. Corrosive water can strip lead from pipes and fixtures.

Brown said a possible solution suggested to him for making the water less corrosive in pipes is shooting air into the water.

On Thursday, district staff mailed information to all parents and guardians and sent information about school water lead levels home with students.


To learn more about the school district’s water testing results and corrective action plan, attend a public forum and panel discussion on student drinking water Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. in the South Whidbey Intermediate School gym. School district administrators, board members and Island County Department of Health officials will be present to answer questions.

Anyone wishing to contact the district directly with questions to be answered on Monday can e-mail John Willson, interim transportation and maintenance director at

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