Kalispell schools plan for lead testing

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Kalispell Public Schools recently outlined a tentative three-year schedule for testing drinking water for lead in its facilities to the school board in response to a parent’s concern raised last fall.

The scheduling coincides with work the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the state Department of Public Health and Human Services are wrapping up in order to present for public comment regulations requiring schools test drinking water for lead.

Testing drinking water for lead is currently voluntary for Montana schools that get water from regulated public water systems, which are tested regularly.

The last time the district tested for lead was 12 years ago, also at a time of major construction projects.

The district proposes to start testing this summer as major construction projects are completed, starting with Rankin Elementary, Kalispell Middle School and Glacier High School. The remaining five elementary schools and the transportation department would be tested in 2020 and the district office, Flathead High School and Linderman Education Center in 2021. The H.E. Robinson Vocational Agriculture Center is the only facility tested on a regular basis since it is connected to a well and testing is required.

“We certainly want to ensure our water and our facilities are safe and we felt that with so many of our schools at some level of renovation or improvement it certainly would make sense to do another round of lead testing,” Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau said.

The school district is connected to the city of Kalispell’s water system (with the exception of the Vo-Ag Center), however it may not be an adequate assessment of lead in individual buildings, according to Montana Department of Environmental Quality Public Supply Bureau Chief Jon Dilliard.

Dilliard said the presence of lead in drinking water is primarily an internal plumbing issue. What testing a municipal drinking supply shows is how corrosive water is, which can change over time. If water is corrosive and it sits in plumbing with lead solder, for example, lead may leach into the water. The chance of this occurring in new construction materials is minimal, Dilliard said.

As of now, Flatau said the district will follow U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations that are used for testing municipal water supplies, which is a maximum level of lead allowed in drinking water of 15 parts per billion (ppb). However, the agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that “no safe blood lead level in children has been identified,” and even a “low level” of lead in a child’s blood could lead to issues in behavior, learning, IQ, growth, hearing and hyperactivity.

Due to the impact on children’s health and the absence of laws for lead testing in schools’ drinking water the state plans to set a significantly lower threshold at 5 ppb.

“Part of the reason we’re going lower than the national standard is that a younger person is more susceptible to lead poisoning,” Dilliard said.

The number is also due to detection limits.

“The main reason to set it at 5 ppb is what they call the ‘practical quantification limits’ for the testing method. What that means is that the testing method used to determine how much lead is in the water is accurate down to 5 ppb,” Dilliard said. “Below 5 parts per billion, it’s not so accurate.”

They are proposing schools conduct tests annually to start and then follow a modified schedule if tests results are higher or lower than 5 parts per billion.

Funding is another issue with lead testing. The test schools would be required to do costs $25, Dilliard, said where a sample would be analyzed in the lab and a report explaining the results given to schools.

When each fixture — a drinking fountain, faucet or shower, for example — is being tested, the costs add up for a district the size of Kalispell Public Schools.

Right now, Kalispell Public Schools provided a cost estimate based on $15 per test, which wouldn’t include a report, according to Flatau. The total estimate adds up to $15,250 over three years.

Dilliard said the Department of Environment Quality hasn’t committed a specific amount of money to help schools cover testing and remediation costs as of yet, but will seek grants.

“The DEQ has committed to finding any funding source that we can to help schools pay for testing and remediation if the funding is available,” Dilliard said, with any money going first toward testing costs.

Why now? Department of Public Health and Human Services School Health and Asthma Program Manager William Biskupiak said lead testing is just one of many changes proposed as the department revises regulations for Montana schools. Biskupiak said public health matters in schools are outdated by about 30 years. He said the current state of revision stems from a process that has been ongoing for several years due in part to changes in staff.

“We’ve gotten to a point where we have a good group and we’re closer than ever before with all the rule updates,” he added.

Biskupiak said the goal is to have rules available for public comment by April or May through the Secretary of State Office.

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

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