Local Views: Lead in the Water in Stillwater Area Public Schools

To the editor:

If you are a parent, you’ve probably received the dreaded sheet of paper in your child’s backpack: Someone in your child’s classroom has lice. You start feeling a little itchy-stratchy just from reading the headline on the page.

The schools send out alerts if there is strep in the class, if police or ambulance are called to the school, if school is going to be closed for weather. Not to mention the multiple fundraising notices.

The schools did not send out a notice about something very concerning. Lead in the water at the public schools. 

In 2014, the school district hired a consulting firm, Field Environmental Consulting, to test the lead levels in each of the schools, at each water spout.  They received that report in 2014. They knew that there were schools with lead level in the water at 7 of the schools in the district had water sources with lead in excess of the highest safety threshold set by the Minnesota Department of Health.

The district was aware of this is 2014. But no notice was ever sent to parents, families, or staff about the lead in the water of these schools. 

The report does show that no drinking fountains were found to have had lead rates over the threshold, but without notice to parents and staff, were children advised not to fill their water bottles from fountains only?

Or were children filling water bottles from sinks in classrooms without anyone knowing the lead levels were well beyond safety limits?

Are children washing their hands in lead riddled water and then using those hands to go and eat?

Is cooking being done with lead toxic water?

Fact: The district knew about a lead in the water problem in 2014.

Fact: KSTP ran a news story on Thursday, September 8, 2016 about lead testing of Minnesota metro schools’ water.

Fact: The school district notified the parents about the lead in the water of the schools on September 11, 2016.

Fact: The district’s environmental consulting firm advised the schools to institute a “flushing protocol” where water elevated lead level water sources are left running for 10 minutes 2x daily in their report from 2014. 

Fact: The district emailed teachers to institute a “flushing protocol” following the KSTP news story. 

While voters passed a bond bill for $97.5 million dollars, to fund, in addition to other items, a football stadium, playground equipment, air conditioning at the schools, the issue mitigating lead in the pipes was considered part of an ongoing levy issue. The board approved the request to replace the pipes at Afton Lakeland to the same time as installation of the HVAC.

While the new stadium is nearly complete, a “flushing” protocol is now in place to mitigate high lead levels in water in the schools. Lead in the water is a very serious issue. While the “allowable” amount in water is 20ppb, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that NO lead level is safe for children.

The AAP urges legal requirements that lead be removed from contaminated housing and child care facilities and to ensure water fountains in schools do not exceed water lead concentrations of more than 1 part per billion. Not one of the drinking water stations in the school measure at a zero. Not one is under 1ppb.

Lead is a toxin that affects multiple body systems (brain, liver, kidney, bones) and is particularly harmful to young children. Lead exposure is estimated to cause 674,000 deaths per year worldwide. Lead poisoning is completely preventable.

What can lead exposure do to children?

It can lead to a wide range of symptoms, from headaches and stomach pain to behavioral problems and anemia (not enough healthy red blood cells).

Lead also can affect a child’s developing brain. Signs of lead poisoning in adults may include: declines in mental functioning, pain, numbness or tingling in the extremities, memory loss, mood disorders. 

Blindly, parents trusted that the schools the children were attending were safe environments. How have children in the district (specifically at these 7 schools) been affected without knowing it?

Would parents, if given the information, have chosen any differently for their children (from hand washing, to where to fill water bottles). The school district took away any options of parents proactively protecting their children. 

I’d like to know:

Why wasn’t this communicated to parents earlier?

Why isn’t bottled water brought in?

Why are those faucets still on?

Does the district have plans to provide heavy metals testing on the students at affected schools to ensure that there is not a health issue?

If a flushing protocol is called for 2x per day, why are teachers being notified to do it once per day? 

If a flushing protocol was called for in 2014, why were staff asked to begin the flushing protocol in 2016?

If a flushing protocol is in place, are those water sources being tested following the flushing to check for safe lead levels?  (The head of school operations told the Afton-Lakeland PTA on September 12, 2016 that no follow up tests had been completed to date).

The school district sent a statement on September 11, 2016 to parents in the district.  Included in that statement was an assertion that most lead toxicities are caused in the home of the child.  I don’t doubt that’s what the Minnesota Department of Health has on file.  But, since we now know that some 600 schools in the metro are not even up to date on the testing for lead in the water, how can we be certain it’s from homes rather than schools?

Lice don’t cause debilitating ailments.  Lice is just a nuisance.

If lice in a classroom can create communication with parents, shouldn’t lead in the water get at least that level of action at a minimum?

— DeeDee Armstrong, Afton