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Nine Manchester schools found to have high lead levels in drinking water

New Hampshire Sunday News

September 02. 2016 3:38PM
Green Acres is one of six elementary schools and nine overall in the city with high lead levels in their water. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — Drinking fountains and classroom sinks at nine Manchester schools are turned off, after water testing showed some lead levels higher than acceptable limits.

The results came from water testing of nearly 500 sinks and fountains at all 22 city schools, prompted by the lead contamination crisis in Flint, Mich.

Manchester Water Works did the testing over the summer and the results were made public Friday — four days before schoolchildren return to classrooms.

The affected schools are: Gossler Park, Green Acres, Smyth Road, Jewett Street, Northwest and Webster elementary schools; Hillside Middle School; and Central and West high schools.

The testing came at the urging of the state Department of Environmental Services. DES Commissioner Thomas Burack sent a letter to all school superintendents on May 17, recommending that all schools test the water for potential lead contamination.

“There is no known safe level of lead exposure for children,” Burack wrote.

Initial testing in Manchester found 25 sinks and drinking fountains at 12 schools had lead levels at or higher than the acceptable limit of 15 parts per billion, according to a news release from Manchester School District.

Those locations were retested twice, and subsequent samples showed “much lower” lead levels.

However, levels exceeding 15 parts per billion were confirmed in two sinks and one drinking fountain. Officials said plumbing in those three fixtures will have to be modified or replaced to correct the problem.

An additional 13 drinking fountains and classroom sinks — where fixtures showed elevated levels during the second round of testing — will also be turned off and remedied, officials said.

James Martin, spokesman for DES, said he understands that lead causes concern among parents. Still, he said, “I think that parents should be reassured by the fact that they’ve done the testing and they now have the information.”

“I’m sure that people will be uncomfortable with the fact that it was found at all and be concerned about possible exposure, but at least now, there can be action taken to remedy the situation and eliminate the exposure,” he said.

One Webster School parent said Friday she’s not worried about the lead levels if the schools follow through on their remediation plans. “This is always a risk in older buildings with old pipes with contamination,” said Erin Kerwin. “I am thankful that Manchester Water Works took the initiative to test the water so that the problems can be addressed.”

Philip Croasdale, director of Manchester Water Works, said the source of the lead is not Massabesic Lake, the city’s water supply or its water treatment facility.

“Rather, lead can enter drinking water as a result of corrosion, as water comes into contact with pipes, plumbing connections and fixtures,” he said in a news release.

“That’s why we can isolate our concerns to individual locations within a school.”

Tim Soucy, public health director for the city of Manchester, said it’s typical for a first round of testing to show higher lead levels than subsequent tests, after the system has been flushed.

“We do it over the summer months because that’s the worst case scenario,” he said. “The water’s been stagnant for five or six weeks from when school let out to when the testing occurred.”

Soucy said it’s “highly unlikely” that schoolchildren would have received significant exposure to lead in water from fixtures in school.

The degree of harm from lead exposure depends on factors such as frequency, duration and dose. Infants and children exposed to lead can experience delays in physical and mental development, lower IQ levels, reduced attention span, learning disabilities, hearing loss, hyperactivity and poor classroom performance, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Until the 1930s, lead was routinely used in water distribution systems. But as recently as March, Manchester officials had said most of those connections had been replaced with copper, and the number of remaining lead connections was “minimal.”

Superintendent of Schools Debra Livingston said school district officials had no reason to suspect a widespread lead problem in Manchester, but welcomed the testing by the water department. “We want to be sure we are doing everything we can to protect the health of our children,” she said.

This is the latest water contamination issue to arise in New Hampshire. Several communities in the southern part of the state are grappling with contaminated drinking water that has been tied to a plastics manufacturing plant in Merrimack.

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