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Schools found to have high levels of lead in tap water

Thirteen public schools on the Big Island were found to have elevated levels of lead in their tap water, state agencies announced Thursday.

As part of a nationwide initiative called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation, the state Departments of Education, Health and Human Service have tested the lead levels of drinking water sources at 58 schools and 70 child care facilities in Hawaii, Maui and Kauai counties throughout this year.

Of those, 22 schools and 27 child care facilities were on the Big Island. And although none of those child care centers have had elevated lead levels in their water, 13 of the Big Island schools had higher-than-acceptable lead levels in at least one water tap.

“So far, most of the data we’ve collected implies that the problem is in the fixtures themselves, not necessarily the underlying plumbing,” said state toxicologist Diana Felton. “It implies that the infrastructure is old.”

Statewide, 4% of the water sources tested were found to have an unacceptably high level of lead — 15 parts per billion.

“We want there to be zero lead, actually,” Felton said. “No amount of lead is good for a child. But we have to set some sort of cutoff, and our tests don’t go that low.”

Prolonged lead exposure can cause learning difficulties and neurocognitive disorders in children, Felton said. Although it is very uncommon for someone to have toxic amounts of lead in their bloodstream from drinking water alone, she said keiki could be exposed to lead from additional sources, such as old lead-based paint or contaminated soil.

Felton said follow-up testing will be necessary to determine whether the contamination at each school is merely from old fixtures — which can be replaced relatively easily — or from a more thoroughly compromised plumbing system. That testing is expected to be completed by late fall, she said.

The state has submitted an application to the Environmental Protection Agency to fund a second phase of the project that would test an additional 73 public schools and 30 public charter schools.

In the meantime, those water sources that have lead levels higher than 15 ppb will not be used for drinking or food preparation, Felton said — they will be used as stations to wash hands only, or be disused entirely.

Water sources between 5 and 15 ppb have also been noted, Felton said, and schools have been advised to flush them for 30-60 seconds regularly, use lead-free filters or turn them into hand-wash only stations as well.

According to the state, the DOE is in the process of devising a plan to replace the affected fixtures or evaluate the plumbing of affected schools.

Ultimately, although Hawaii’s lead levels are slightly lower than some places on the mainland, based on similar tests, Felton said 4% is still too high.

“I’m not pleased about these results, but I’m glad the testing is going smoothly,” Felton said. “It’s hard to learn about how we’re doing badly, but it’s important to know this so we know how to repair the problem.”

The Big Island schools that had lead levels higher than 15 ppb:

• Honaunau Elementary, with two of 45 taps;

• Honokaa Elementary, with three of 52 taps;

• Hookena Elementary, with one of 14 taps;

• Kahakai Elementary, with two of 80 taps;

• Kalanianaole Elementary, seven of 47 taps. One tap at Kalanianaole, a sink in room D82, tested at 398 ppb, by far the highest lead level WIIN recorded on the island;

• Kapiolani Elementary, nine of 56 taps;

• Kau High and Pahala Elementary, three of 50 taps;

• Ke Kula O Ehunuikaimalino, two of 17 taps;

• Keaukaha Elementary, three of 42 taps;

• Mountain View Elementary, one of 66 taps;

• Paauilo Elementary and Intermediate, four of 40 taps;

• Waiakea Elementary, five of 95 taps; and

• Waiakeawaena Elementary, three of 67 taps.

The other schools tested that did not have elevated lead levels include Haaheo Elementary, Hilo Union Elementary, Holualoa Elementary, Kaumana Elementary, Kealakehe Elementary, Naalehu Elementary and Pahoa Elementary. Kohala and Waimea elementaries also were tested, but results for those schools have not yet been released.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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