December 9, 2006

Appleby parents worry about lead levels

Readings have been elevated since 2002; health officials say notification not needed


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Students use bottled-water dispensers in a hallway at Appleby Elementary School in Marathon. Water fountains throughout the school have been covered with bags due to elevated levels of lead.

Staff Reporter

MARATHON — Michelle Mullen took her sixth-grade daughter to the doctor in November to have her tested for lead in her blood.
Mullen and other parents of Appleby Elementary School students found out Nov. 17 the school has had periodic readings of elevated levels of lead in the drinking water since December 2002.
The highest reading— 15 times above the accepted level — came in September 2003. Three years later, Mullen and others are wondering why notification of the problem has only now arrived.
“I am obviously very, very, concerned,” said Mullen, co-president of the Marathon Parent Teacher Organization. “I do trust our schools, I trust the school board, I trust the administration, and I definitely trust the teachers. But am I upset that it took this long? Yes.”
The school district has scheduled a Dec. 19 public meeting to address the issue.
The levels of lead are not believed to pose a health hazard, but the Cortland County Health Department has ordered the district to notify parents and take temporary precautions, including bringing in bottled water.
Superintendent of Schools Tim Turecek said the public information meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. in the Appleby cafeteria. The meeting will focus on the effects of lead in the water at the school. Turecek said medical experts from the county Health Department will attend.
Earth science teacher and President of Marathon Teacher’s Association Debra Carlone said the lead situation is “scary.”
“We just weren’t notified in a timely fashion,” Carlone said.
Turecek said the district had done testing since 2002 at the elementary school and the school exceeded the regulations on different occasions. He said the county Health Department makes the decision to notify the public.
John Helgren, a public health engineer for the Health Department, said at a certain point the department requires public notification. He also said it was up to the district if it wants to put out a public notification before being required to do so by the department.
“People don’t want to do a notification unless they have to,” Helgren said.
Tammy Flint, a parent, said she did not know lead levels were high at the school. Flint said as a parent it makes her “feel bad” that elevated lead levels has been an ongoing problem for four years at the school.
“My daughter has been lucky to have only gone there for a couple of years,” Flint said. “If I were a parent who had a child that went there for four years, I would be very ticked.”
Flint said that even at home she gives her children bottled water.
State and federal regulations require that lead cannot exceed the “action level,” which requires plan to reduce the amount of lead in the water. The level is 15 parts per billion or 0.015 milligrams per liter in water.
Appleby’s highest reading was 0.228 milligrams per liter on Sept. 2, 2003, 15 times higher than state and federal regulations.
County Health Department Director of Environmental Health Audrey Lewis said that even though the children have been drinking the water every day for four years, it is “incidental exposure.”
She said the water at school is not a primary source of nutrition for the children, so “it is not expected to have an impact,” Lewis said.
Lead levels at approximately 1 milligrams per liter and higher can pose serious health risks, Lewis said.
Before Lois Popelka, a parent, knew the elevated lead levels were an ongoing problem, she thought it was “under control.”
“That is upsetting,” Popelka said when she was informed that elevated lead levels were a reoccurring problem. “Lead is a serious issue.”
Although Lewis said the water at the elementary school is “not something we want people to panic on,” Turecek said he is concerned.
“I have to be,” Turecek said. “I don’t know what these numbers mean. No level of toxin is acceptable.”
Turecek said parents are concerned, but “there is a lot of concern coming in, mostly from the faculty. There is a high number of pregnant teachers at the school.”
Lewis recommends that parents who have concerns should get their children’s blood tested for lead and pregnant teachers are encouraged to do the same.
Pam Griffith, a supervising public health nurse for the nursing department at the county Health Department, said the normal blood lead level in children and pregnant women is less than 10 micrograms per deciliter.
Both Turecek and Carlone said they knew students who were tested and their blood samples are normal.
Mullen said the test for her 11-year-old daughter showed her levels were 3 micrograms per deciliter.
“The Health Department should have made (us) aware.”
Turecek said water fountains were shut down to prevent students and teachers from ingesting the water and 10 five-gallon water coolers were brought in. Although elevated lead levels were found only in the elementary school, Turecek outfitted the high school with water coolers and shut off water to the fountains.
“The Health Department did not require us to stop using the water,” Turecek said. “It is a precautionary measure.”
The high school has also been tested for elevated lead levels. Turecek said he expects the results by Tuesday.
He said each school has 10 five-gallon water coolers. The district is paying the tab for the water coolers, Turecek said. Each cooler costs $4. Turecek said it is costing the district approximately $40 a day to have the water coolers.
Turecek said coolers would be in district schools, “until we get all clear in testing.”



Lead and its effects

Lead is a toxic metal that is harmful, especially to young children and pregnant or nursing women, if inhaled or swallowed, according state and federal health agencies.
Lead can be found in air, soil, dust, food and water, according to the to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site.
State and federal regulations require precautions be taken when levels of lead exceed the so-called “action level,” which is 15 parts per billion or 0.015 milligrams per liter in water.
“Exposure to lead in the environment is most dangerous to children under age 6, and particularly to children between the ages of 1 and 3, according to the state Department of Health Web site. And according to the EPA’s Web site, pregnant women and nursing mothers should also avoid exposure to lead to protect their unborn children and infants.
Pam Griffith, a supervising public health nurse for the nursing department at the Cortland County Health Department, said lead poisoning depends on a slew of factors, including, “individual susceptibility, nutrition, health, age and previous exposure to lead.”
Some of the symptoms of elevated lead levels in children are irritability, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, sluggishness and constipation, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Web site.
County Health Department Director of Environmental Health Audrey Lewis said children are more apt to get lead poisoning because of their hand-to-mouth activities.
In adults, the symptoms include, but are not limited to, memory loss, pain, and headaches and reproductive impairment in men.
Lead can cause a series of adverse health effects in children such as nervous system and kidney damage, learning disabilities, hearing damage and decreased muscle and bone growth, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s Web site. In adults, lead can cause high blood pressure, nerve disorders, digestive problems and cataracts.
Lewis said basic lead prevention includes testing children between 1 and 2 years of age. She said testing children at age 2 is crucial because they are “mobile.” Lewis recommends that older children wash their hands before every meal and limit exposure to dust.
“As kids get older, their risk of exposure drops,” Lewis said.
She said a diet rich in calcium and iron makes people less susceptible to getting lead poisoning.
She said to help keep lead out of drinking water, it should be flushed out one to three minutes before use.
“I do it every morning at my house,” Lewis said. “It is a good habit to have.”
— Sasha Austrie




Elevated lead levels reoccurring

Staff Reporter

Testing begun in 2002 when the Appleby Elementary School started re-chlorinating its water supply discovered the elevated levels of lead in the water, a county health official said.
John Helgren, public health engineer for the Cortland County Health Department, said Appleby began re-chlorination because state and federal regulations require 0.2 milligrams per liter of chlorine in the water and the school was showing smaller amounts of chlorine in its supply.
Once Appleby started chlorinating its water, it had to follow rules pertaining to a public water supply, which includes testing for lead, he said. “This happening is a good thing.”
Helgren said when Appleby received results showing elevated lead levels, the department recommended the district implement a flushing program.
Superintendent of Schools Tim Turecek said since early 2003 the head custodian has overseen the flushing program — which runs the water one to three minutes before use — and the other custodians help.
The highest reading was 0.228 milligrams per liter on Sept. 2, 2003. A second reading 23 days later from the same facet was 0.121 milligrams per liter. The accepted level of lead in drinking water is 0.015 milligrams per liter, according to state and federal regulations.
The latest high reading was 0.0203 on Sept. 29.
Although Appleby has exceeded 0.015 milligrams per liter on numerous occasions, Helgren said there was no public notification initially because of improper administration of tests and a new water source came into use in February after the village drilled new water wells.
Health Department Director of Environmental Health Audrey Lewis said thewater softener was removed from the building’s water supply to help find a solution to the elevated levels of lead.
Lewis said lead was not found in the village of Marathon water, which is the source of water for the school. She added that lead may be coming from individual fixtures and lead solder in pipes at the school.
Appleby Elementary School was built in 1970. The highest concentration of lead was found in the fifth and sixth grade wing, which was added in 1986.
Lewis said the softener may have contributed to elevated lead levels because soft water is more acidic. Lead is more susceptible to leaching from soft water. “Soft water is looking to react with something,” she said.
Lewis said hard water causes a calcium film buildup on fixtures and the softener is added for plumbing purposes.
Helgren said another factor that could have contributed to the elevated lead levels is the water source, which was close to surface water — the Tioughnioga River.
Helgren said even after the village’s new wells were put on line, the school still had high lead levels in its water. The village started using three new wells on Route 11 just beyond the village limits in February.
Helgren said the September sample was the second sample tested since the new water source has been in use. The first test was in March. The September results prompted the recent public notification.
Helgren said 150 to 200 new water samples would be taken from Appleby Elementary on the same day and tested for lead. Turecek said the tests would be conducted over Christmas break.
Depending on the results, Turecek said the district is prepared to use state aid to replace pipes, fixtures and faucets.
The district received $730,748 in Expanding our Children’s Education and Learning aid and all or some will go to rectify the school’s lead problem. EXCEL aid covers the taxpayers’ portion of a project.
“That is money we have not committed to anything,” Turecek said. “We will use that, if necessary.”
But before the district replaces pipes and fixtures, Turecek said it would use two chemical additives the health department suggested.
Lewis said the chemicals orthophosphate and silicate would be added at Appleby as a last resort. Lewis said orthophosphate is widely used.
“A sufficient amount of phosphate residual would be maintained in the water and causes a protective coating to form on the interior of plumbing fixtures and lead water service pipes,” Lewis said. “This treatment may not completely eliminate, but should reduce the amount of lead that dissolves.”