With the first day of school here in Portland now less than two weeks away this is a good time to focus our attention once again on the issue of lead in school drinking water. As I wrote in a blog last May, the issue emerged with special urgency as the previous school year drew to a close with the citywide scandal in Flint, Michigan drawing national attention to lead poisoning issues nationwide.
Unfortunately if local and national media coverage are anything to go by the answer to the question: ‘Have the Portland schools used the summer months to fix the problem?’ is: hard to say; it isn’t clear. An article published in The Oregonian just this week focused on similar problems in Beaverton – indicating that the problem is not confined to Oregon’s largest city, but with the Portland Schools still trying to finalize selection of an interim superintendent attention appears to have drifted away from the issue of lead in the school system’s drinking water.
As a report last week in The Oregonian detailed, the Portland Public Schools system’s record is not good. “Lead-reducing filters cost about $100 and are proven by independent laboratories to reduce lead to below 10 parts per billion. The district used filters that in 2008 cost $12.87 apiece.” A 2007 plan to install filters directly on drinking fountains went awry when it was discovered that the contractor used the wrong filters. A 2011 attempt using a different company led to filters that were supposed to last seven months failing after only 12 days.
At least Portland has tried to address the problem. As TV station KATU reported recently, there is no legal requirement at either the federal or the state level for most schools to do so. The station confirmed that with a regional manager for the Oregon Health Authority, adding that when “schools do run tests, they don’t have to report the results to you, the state or federal government or anyone else.” The issue, as detailed in a lengthy analysis of the issue by the Washington Post (link below – the article is long, but well worth reading in full) is that under federal law only “8 to 11 percent of all schools” are required to test their own water (mostly those that draw their water from dedicated wells). For schools that use the local tap water “the testing happens at the water treatment plant, before water courses through miles and miles of plumbing and fixtures. If those pipes and fixtures contain lead – and they often do as lead-based pipes weren’t outlawed until 1986 – then water can become contaminated on the journey to the tap… the water in a school is often more likely to be contaminated than the water in a home because schools close for long periods, leaving water sitting in the pipes. The stagnant water creates chemical and bacterial conditions that can intensify the lead problem.”
In short, the chances of an Oregon child being injured because of the Portland school system’s failure to deal with this issue are shockingly high. I do not need to rehearse here the extraordinary damage lead can do in a young person’s body, particularly if it builds up over a long period of time. As a Portland attorney specializing in injuries to children, and as a parent, I sincerely hope that this issue is addressed at the city and state level in a quick and comprehensive manner before schools reopen on August 31 (September 6 for Kindergarten and pre-K). In the longer term this will require a concerted effort from state and local government to upgrade infrastructure throughout the city, but most immediately we here in Portland – like other parents around the state – need the assurance of local officials that they will install the right kind of filters to guarantee the safety of our children when they return to school in a few weeks’ time.