Tests Show Lead In Metro Schools' Drinking Water

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A NewsChannel 5 investigation discovers children exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their water.

It occurred where you expect children to be safe -- right inside their own schools.

The tests were conducted last summer and fall by Metro Schools.

Officials there recently put out a news release congratulating themselves for being proactive about addressing the problem of lead in the district's water.

But we discovered that the problem may be worse than what families were told.

"We're confident that our drinking water is safe," said Dennis Neal, the school system's executive director of facility and grounds maintenance.

It was the public health emergency in Flint, Michigan, that put lead in drinking water into the national conversation and prompted Metro Schools to hire a company to test the water in the district's oldest buildings.

The results -- contained in a report obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates -- reveal some children may have been drinking water with lead concentrations higher than the average levels in Flint

Click below to review summary data from each school

Click here to view the raw data for each school

Yet, the man in charge of Metro school buildings attempted to put a positive spin on the numbers.

Neal noted that the Environmental Protection Agency sets a lead "action level" of 15 parts per billion for public drinking water systems.

And out of 2,800 samples tested, they found just 81 above that threshold.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Would you concede that children were consuming unsafe water in some locations?"

"We think no," Neal answered.

"Despite these numbers?"

"Again," he continued, "you have to go look back at where we found the problems. Again, the areas where we found the problems are areas that are rarely used by our students."

But we checked Metro's test results.

At Waverly-Belmont Elementary, a faucet in one classroom tested at 135 parts per billion, while a second classroom registered 200 parts per billion.

At DuPont Elementary in Old Hickory, a water fountain there tested at 238 parts per billion.

And at Hillwood High, the chiller unit for a water fountain there registered 1,190 parts per billion -- that's almost 80 times the EPA action level.

"I was pretty appalled," said Nashville pediatrician Dr. Mary Keown, who reviewed the results at the request of NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Keown routinely checks young children for lead exposure because she knows the detrimental effects it can have on their development.

"It's been associated with about one in six cases of attention deficit disorder nationally," she noted. "We know that it can cause, in higher levels, loss of IQ points. And we also know it can cause an increase in violence in older kids."

That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics says there is no safe level of lead.

Last year, it recommended that school drinking water have no more than 1 part per billion.

So NewsChannel 5 Investigates obtained the raw data and discovered what the report doesn't tell you -- that, out of the 2,800 samples taken, more than a third exceeded the pediatricians' recommendation of what is safe for children to drink.

In fact, all but one building had at least one fixture with measurable lead contamination.

At DuPont Hadley Middle School in Old Hickory, 54 out of 83 samples registered more than 1 part per billion, 11 were more than 10 parts per billion, while 5 topped the EPA's so-called action level.

Over in West Nashville, at The Academy at Old Cockrill, 18 out of 19 samples exceeded one part per billion for lead, 15 were more than 5 parts, while almost a third topped 15 parts.

The highest: a classroom faucet registered 198 parts per billion.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Neal, "If a fixture had a lead content of more than 15 parts per billion, you took it offline?"

"Correct, that's exactly right," he answered.

"But if it tested at 5, 10 or 14 parts per billion, you did nothing?"

"That's right."

That answer did not sit well with John Rumpler, the clean water program director for Environment America.

"It's not as if it's safe for your child to be drinking water with 14 or 13 or 10 parts per billlion," Rumpler told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Rumpler published a recent report that suggests getting the lead completely out of schools.

He said the real story is probably even worse than the Metro Schools numbers suggest.

"Yes, those numbers are alarming, but I think they are just the tip of the iceberg."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Neal, "Would you have been comfortable with your children drinking 14 parts per billion lead?"

"It meets the EPA standard," Neal replied.

We pressed, "My question is would you feel comfortable?"

"Yes, we rely on... Yes, I would," he finally answered.

But ask someone who knows what's really good for children, and you'll get a different answer.

"Why would we in any shape or form give our child -- your child, my child -- that will affect their ability to learn and their ability to develop?" Dr. Keown asked.

In some cases, we discovered, school officials decided to do nothing about water fixtures with high levels of lead if they were able to get a lower number during a second test.

Special Section:
NC5 Investigates: Lead in School Water

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