Most Billings schools have at least some lead in their water, according to a new report from an environmental group.
Levels are far below what sparked a crisis in Flint, Michigan, and are below the EPA's "action level." Schools around the country, from Oregon to Pennsylvania, have grappled with lead levels in water — often much higher than the those found in Montana.
But as the report notes, no lead is good lead.
“Doctors and public health agencies agree: there is no safe amount of lead in drinking water, especially when our children are concerned,” said Skye Borden of the Environment Montana Research and Policy Center in a press release about the report. That's backed up by guidance from an alphabet soup of federal health agencies.
School district officials announced that three elementary schools tested in March 2016 were within safe levels at a school board meeting the following month. They tested the rest of the district in September 2016.
Those results, requested by the Environment Montana Research and Policy Center, show that lead levels ranged between 11 parts per billion and zero. Most schools had at least 1 ppb.
The EPA "action level" threshold for public water systems is 15 ppb.
A report from the American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that "state and local governments should take steps to ensure that water fountains in schools do not exceed water lead concentrations of 1 ppb."
The Environment Montana report calls the results "shocking," and declares that "Montana’s urban schools have a lead problem."
Billings superintendent Terry Bouck called those conclusions "misleading," emphasizing that schools were under the EPA threshold.
"I felt really good two years ago about meeting the standards in every one of our buildings," he said.
State officials were cautious when talking about the report's framing of health risks.
"I think we don't know enough to comment on the rigor of the report," said Laura Williamson, Senior Public Health Epidemiologist for the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.
State officials confirmed that the 15 ppb standard the EPA uses isn't necessarily tied to specific health risks.
"I can't really say exactly why they made it at 15," said state toxicologist Matt Ferguson.
Part of the reason is based on the contribution contaminated water can make to a person's bloodstream. Recommendations informed by a nationwide long-term study recently lowered a child's "level of concern" to 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood from 10 micrograms per deciliter. Both amounts of lead are much smaller than a grain of sand in a few ounces of blood.
That's reflective of overall decreasing amounts in the general population, and a goal that always aims to lower amounts compared to the general population, Williamson said.
It's certain that lead contamination poses risks, especially for children. Drinking water laws limited the amount of lead used in plumbing in 1986; structures built before then are more likely to have lead contamination.
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"You can make an assumption that the older it is, the chances are that it is going to have fixtures that have high lead in them," said Montana Department of Environmental Quality Public Water Supply Bureau chief Jon Dilliard.
Lead builds up in humans over time; children are especially susceptiable.
"Their bodies are still growing, their neurological systems are still developing," Ferguson said.
Even low levels of lead measured in children's blood are linked to behavioral and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia. The effects of contamination can be delayed, and high lead exposure can create immediate health issues.
In recent years, the EPA has emphasized that lead exposure below 15 ppb can still have health effects.
"There is no safe level of lead exposure," the agency wrote in 2016 guidance.
That doesn't mean that cities are ripping up their pipes. Dealing with lead contamination in water systems is costly.
In Flint, tests from individual homes were as high as 13,200 ppb, and tests at schools were far above the EPA threshold. Media reports detailed how children developed rashes and mysterious illnesses. But it still took months for officials to acknowledge the problem, and more time to approve a fix. Michigan’s governor’s office estimated that it would cost about $55 million to replace Flint’s lead piping.
Billings city water supply, which SD2 schools draw from, was tested dozens of times between 2015 and 2017 as part of state compliance. Testing showed a lead level of 5 and 6 ppb.
Exposure can vary based on individual fixtures within a larger water system. In Missoula County, Seeley-Swan High School measured 28 ppb. The school district replaced four water fixtures with high lead content and installed a filter. A consultant found a backed-up abandoned water line near the school's water pipe that could have been a source of contamination.
No other Missoula County school tested above 15 ppb.
The Environment Montana report requested results of voluntary tests conducted by school districts in Billings, Missoula, Great Falls and Bozeman.
About 75 percent of tests found some level of lead in the water. The report doesn't say how many schools the tests represent.
Nationwide, mandatory testing for lead in schools is something of a blind spot. Schools usually have to test for lead only if they operate their own water system; most Montana schools are hooked up to an outside system.
The report reviewed tests from more than 100 Montana schools that are required to test their water; about 78 percent of samples had lead in them.
School District 2 plans to start another round of lead testing this month, with a tentative plan to test every two years, Bouck said. He hoped that additional work at elementary schools that’s been done with the last of the money from a 2012 bond project would help address lead levels related to old infrastructure.
This chart shows the lead contamination levels in water in Billings schools in parts per billion based on testing done in 2016. The Environmental Protection Agency's "action level" threshold for lead levels is 15 parts per billion.