Lead testing considered for Kalispell schools’ drinking water

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As the issue of lead in drinking water in schools has bubbled to the top of concerns in school districts around the nation, Kalispell Public Schools is now considering testing the water in its buildings following a parent’s request at recent board meetings.

Parent Ryan Hunter was concerned about lead levels in schools’ drinking water when his child started kindergarten at Hedges Elementary School. Hunter said he had already tested a fixture in his own home near Hedges Elementary, which came back positive for lead.

“When we moved in, it was about the time Flint, Michigan, was in the news and we decided to test our kitchen faucet where we would be getting drinking water. We found 1 part per billion of lead and installed a filter,” Hunter said, which took care of the problem and further tests were negative. He now sends his daughter to school with bottled water until the school’s drinking water is tested.

Testing drinking water for lead is voluntary for Montana schools that get water from regulated public water systems, and there are no federal laws.

“Lead in drinking water is primarily an internal plumbing issue,” Montana Department of Environmental Quality Public Supply Bureau Chief Jon Dilliard said

This is why testing a municipal drinking water supply may not be an adequate assessment of lead levels in individual buildings and homes. What test results from a municipal drinking water supply can show is how corrosive water is, which can change over time, according to Dilliard.

“If the water is very corrosive, and it sits in a lead service line, or it sits in copper plumbing that had lead solder, that corrosive water will leach lead into water,” Dilliard said. “And that’s the lead you see in water.”

Water temperature and amount of wear in pipes also factor into corrosion.

While the presence of lead in pipes, fixtures and solder is more likely in buildings constructed before 1986 amendments to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, newer construction is also at risk of contamination when “lead-free” plumbing could legally contain up to 8 percent of the heavy metal, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That amount was reduced to 0.25 percent in 2011 through the Reduction of Lead In Drinking Water Act.

“Under new construction, with new materials, the chances of having lead is very, very small,” Dilliard said.

With all of Kalispell’s schools undergoing major construction (except Glacier High School and Kalispell Middle School), Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau said it would make sense to consider conducting tests as projects are completed.

Lead testing is an extensive process that may require multiple samples from a single fixture, which adds up for a district that recently underwent budget cuts. Kalispell Public Schools includes six elementary schools, a middle school, two high schools, an alternative high school center and a vocational agricultural center. The Montana State Environmental Laboratory, which does public water supply compliance testing for drinking water, for example, conducts lead testing at $25 per sample, for example.

Without an established standard for what is a “safe” level of lead in schools’ drinking water, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Environmental Protection Agency agree that “no safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”

According to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, drinking water may account for “up to 20 percent or more of a person’s total exposure to lead.” Lead may also be found in soil, dust, food and consumer products. Lead is a health concern when it is ingested. Lead in water is not absorbed through the skin if a person washes their hands. It also accumulates in the body over time.

Young children and infants are “particularly vulnerable to lead because of the physical and behavioral effects of lead occur at lower exposure levels in children than in adults. A dose of lead that would have little effect on an adult can have a significant effect on a child,” the Environmental Protection Agency states. Exposure has been linked to damage in the brain, kidneys, liver and bones, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization.

Due to the impact on children’s health and the absence of federal or state laws for testing drinking water for lead in schools and childcare facilities, Dilliard said the Montana Department of Environment Quality is working closely with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services to establish requirements.

“We recognize it’s a problem out there that is not addressed in the federal regulations and it doesn’t appear it’s going to be addressed in the revisions of the Lead and Copper Rule,” Dilliard said.

The Lead Copper Rule is a federal regulation that limits the concentration levels of lead and copper in public drinking water as part of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“We’re looking at proposing legislation that would establish a grant program that could be used to reimburse schools and childcare facilities for testing costs and any other remediation costs they incur,” Dilliard said.

As of 2017, eight states had lead testing requirements for drinking water in schools and 13 states financially assisted school districts that conducted voluntary tests/remediation, according to a national report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office reviewing school practices and how federal guidelines could be improved. The report included a survey in 2017 that showed 43 percent of districts, serving 35 million students, tested for lead. Of those districts, 37 percent found elevated levels and reduced or eliminated exposure.

This wouldn’t be the first time Kalispell Public Schools tests drinking water for lead. It tested its buildings in 2006, according to Tina Malkuch of Safewater Testing Simplified, which conducted the tests. She said areas of concern, where results showed lead at 10 parts per billion (ppb), were mitigated.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends schools take action on lead remediation when drinking-water samples show concentrations exceeding 20 ppb, whereas public water systems are required to take action when levels reach a maximum contamination level of 15 ppb. This difference is based on the smaller samples taken to “pinpoint specific fountains and outlets that require attention,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

The nonprofit Environment Montana Research and Policy Center recommends setting the bar at 1 ppb.

A report from the nonprofit center, which came out in April, looked at lead contamination in schools from Montana’s four largest cities that voluntarily conducted tests between 2016 and 2018, including Billings, Bozeman, Missoula County and Great Falls. According to the center, between 68 to 70 percent of tests contained lead at, or above, 1 ppb.

Kalispell’s new Rankin Elementary may be the first to be tested.

“One of the discussions we had is how we develop an intentional, thoughtful testing program. Again, no final decisions made, we talked about having a plan at the end of each construction period, or end of construction at particular school,” Flatau said.

Until then, Hunter continues sending his daughter to school with bottled water.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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