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What to make of Capital Region school lead tests

Public health experts agree that no amount of lead is good for children and that testing school water sources is a positive step toward identifying and ultimately reducing places of lead exposure.
Public health experts agree that no amount of lead is good for children and that testing school water sources is a positive step toward identifying and ultimately reducing places of lead exposure.
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— Schools across the region are shutting down water sources that tested above the EPA “action level” for lead concentrations – a positive step toward reducing lead exposure, health experts said.

But parents shouldn’t panic over any particular water source’s lead levels, as school exposure alone is unlikely to drive dangerously high lead concentrations.

Results started to trickle in from districts last week and this week – the first round of results come from elementary schools under a new state law that mandates district-wide testing – with most schools identifying at least one water source that exceeded the EPA and state limits for lead concentration of 15 parts per billion. For any source that tested above that threshold, districts are required to prohibit access until the source can be fixed and tests below the limits.

Shenendehowa elementary schools, for example, had as few as three sources above the limit – at Okte Elementary – and as many as 19 sources above the limit – at Tesago Elementary. In Saratoga Springs’ three elementary schools, 37 water sources tested above the threshold. Guilderland schools shut off 98 water sources that tested above the threshold – roughly 22 percent of the district’s elementary school water sources.

The test results ranged from sources that only slightly exceeded the action level to a smaller number of water sources that registered lead contamination levels in the 150 to 250 parts per billion range.

One fountain at Dorothy Nolan Elementary School in Saratoga Springs serves as the big outlier so far, testing at more than 60 times the EPA level – 930 parts per billion.

“That fountain should be taken out immediately – there is something seriously wrong with that,” David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at University at Albany’s School for Public Health, said of a fountain that would test at such high levels, while still pointing out that there can be a range of test results depending on when in the day and week a source is tested.

Maura Manny, a spokeswoman for Saratoga Springs schools, said the district recommends parents concerned by the test results should consult with their healthcare provider. Sources that tested above the state limit would be analyzed for the causes of the elevated lead levels, she said.

Public health experts agree that no amount of lead is good for children and that testing school water sources is a positive step toward identifying and ultimately reducing places of lead exposure.

“That isn’t to say it’s ideal to have 15 parts per billion in your drinking water; ideally it should be zero,” Carpenter said. “Those situations where there is grossly elevated lead need to be treated as an emergency and you need to stop having anyone drinking that water.”

But the experts also said the range of test results coming into schools shouldn’t be overly interpreted by parents and cautioned that school water exposure was unlikely to cause the kinds of dramatic lead concentrations that cause major health problems. The greater risk of lead poisoning often comes from lead paint exposure. And children may be exposed to lead in the water at their homes, especially if they are older homes.

“I don’t think parents should panic,” said Carrin Schottler, a pediatrician and the medical director of the regional lead resource center at the Albany Medical Center. “It’s very rare that a child can be poisoned by lead in the water alone.”

Schottler said she would recommend that parents concerned with their child’s exposure to a lead-contaminated water source at school should talk to their doctor about taking a simple blood test. She said the kinds of lead levels found in school water sources were unlikely to even cause absorption into a child’s blood.

Carpenter said he didn’t think blood testing was as important as limiting sources of exposure, because it is only at very high levels of lead poisoning that any treatment is possible – aside from healthy living and avoiding exposure.

But today’s children are exposed to far less lead in and out of school than their parents and older generations were and, as a group, have significantly lower blood-lead levels.

In 1978, around 13.5 million children five and under had blood-lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher (a level that sparks home visits by many state health agencies), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2008, the number of children with those levels of lead in their blood had dropped to 250,000.

“Anyone older than 20 had much more exposure,” Carpenter said. “So parents should think how brilliant they would be if they had not been exposed as kid, but they should not want their child to have any exposure.”

Despite the progress made in lowering lead contamination and blood lead levels over the past 40 years, the experts said continuing to reduce exposure should be a prime goal of schools and communities.

Lead exposure, which is especially harmful to children and pregnant women, can lower a person’s IQ, diminish their ability to deal with frustration and reduce their attention span. More recent studies suggest the negative effects of lead exposure are most steep with lower concentration levels and then level off at greater concentration levels.

Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, zmatson@dailygazette.net or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.

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