This article reviews information from past editions, specifically Faith in our filters and What’s in your water? While reading these articles is not necessary to understand the information presented, the Mercury encourages you to read these stories for wider context.
The Mercury has reported on the state of the drinking water at BFA twice before, however, this summer the Vermont Department of Health directed tests school-wide, in compliance with Act 66, to evaluate the lead content of drinking water.
The Department of Health found that many water sources in BFA were, in fact, contaminated with hazardous levels of lead. BFA administration subsequently took those sources out of use until it can be proven that they are free of lead contents.
Both nurses offices proved to contain such levels of lead. Jodi Walker, one of two school nurses, expanded on the subject.
“We found out about the lead exposure this summer. In the nurse’s office I have a number of faucets. The only (sink) that tested positive (for lead) was the one in the closet, which we do not use. We always have the water that is out of our cooler, that does not have lead in it, that’s what we use for medications. We don’t use any of the faucets, other than to wash our hands,” Walker said.
Walker also confronted the reality of the situation, and reiterated the importance of repairs being made to faucets that tested high for lead.
“To potentially be exposed at school is disconcerting, the reality is, it’s an old building. From what I know now, they are fixing all of the different faucets to alleviate that problem,” Walker said.
There are many questions that come to mind considering this “problem:” what were some of the numbers that the Department of Health received through testing? What methods did they use to measure the lead content of the water tested? Was this a foreseen problem? Is our water safe?
The principal’s office at BFA supplied the Mercury with the full collection of data outlining the amount of lead, in parts per billion (ppb,) each water source school-wide contained. This information can be found on the Vermont state website
The numbers detailed in this document are staggering in some cases, especially considering that the accepted “safe” amount of lead in drinking water is now less than 5 ppb, after a recent change in legislation from Montpelier.
Some sources at BFA contained amounts much higher than what is considered to be safe. For instance, testing showed that a water source in room A120 contained 198 ppb of lead on the first draw, 193 ppb over the safe amount. Room W202 also tested at shockingly high numbers, with 226 ppb of lead being found on the first draw.
This raises more questions. Both rooms tested dangerously high in the “first draw” samples collected. Another accepted practice for taking samples of water used for testing is called “flushing.” Flushing involves letting the water source flow for several minutes before samples are collected, to theoretically test water further down the water line. In the cases of rooms A120 and W202, this results in a large decrease in test results. During flush tests, test results showed the sources at only 21 ppb and 1 ppb respectively. This pattern continues throughout the data presented.
The disparity of lead content between samples taken using first draw and flushing are concerning, as flush samples may be used to incorrectly determine if a water source is free of lead. It is unclear if the flush method is used this way or not.
Walker briefly discussed her thoughts on flush testing.
“When I think about the water fountains, kids just put their bottles right up to the water fountain and use them immediately. They don’t flush it,” Walker said.
Walker continued on concerns she has on the situation of BFA’s water.
“It would make me more nervous if we were dealing with a younger population than we are here, so I go back and forth. We also have people that are pregnant that may have come into contact with some of that water, but we have not known of any ill effects yet so I guess time will tell…. The fact that we found lead in the ice machine (in the gym) makes me nervous.That ice is just used for athletes to put in bags because of injuries, which is fine, but how many people have put that ice in their water bottles? I don’t know,” Walker said.
Tim Fugere, a science teacher at BFA, also had water sources in his classroom containing over 5 ppb of lead. Signs reading “do not use for drinking or cooking” depicting a crossed out image of a cup of water being filled at a tap now rest above the faucets that have been deemed unsafe. Fugere provides insight into the scenario.
“The science department was the worst area because it’s in an older building and it has a lot of faucets, so there were a lot of places to check…. These classrooms were put together back in the late 90’s and they haven’t been changed for 20 years, plus they’ve been accumulating whatever has been coming through the pipes,” Fugere said.
Like Walker, Fugere also had questions about the water in his classroom. Fugere points to the left most sink of four lining the back wall of his classroom.
“Some (sinks) get used a lot. So they’re flushed out…. For example, that faucet over there is where I do all my dishes. 99% of the time, when I’m getting water, that’s where I’m going to. If you look around the room, the three other sinks tested high for lead. Is it because I was using it all the time, and kept it washed out? I don’t know,” Fugere said.
A serious concern regarding the safety of drinking water is the lack of knowledge surrounding why or how it has been contaminated with lead. Lead contamination could root from old pipes in BFA’s infrastructure, or from a greater problem in St. Albans’ infrastructure. “I don’t know” has become an interestingly commonplace phrase. Fugere discussed this, and the steps BFA has taken to best remedy the circumstances.
“There are a lot of variables, so in order to meet the expectations, it has to be tested once it goes high, then they have to change everything out. All of the faucets were changed, all of the plumbing going down to the lines were changed. Now Mr. Smith (the Facilities Manager) has to do stationary tests and flush tests every X amount of time until he gets clear readings in all of those areas multiple times,” Fugere said.
Fugere continued, raising an interesting point on the test results of the sinks in his classroom, pointing at the same sink on the left.
“To put in perspective, all of these sinks (in his classroom) are on the same line. So the water that goes to that sink, also goes to this sink, also goes to that one, and that one. So plumbing wise, it’s not like (the water) is coming from a different spot. They’re all connected, yet that one tested fine,” Fugere said.
So is BFA’s drinking water safe? The answer is situational.
BFA Maintenance workers, and the Vermont Department of Health have replaced many water sources that contained lead, and are working on making the remaining sources safe; however, any source of water that has been labeled “do not use”… it’s self explanatory, do not use! For the time being, the safest way to get water is from a designated drinking fountain.
It is vital that students and teachers alike are not only aware of the efforts being made to remedy the issue, but also potential flaws in those efforts, such as the questions raised regarding the reliability of flush testing compared to the “first draw” method.