• Reported on April 13, 2018.

    Oak Harbor Public Schools was recently invited by the Department of Health (DoH) to voluntarily participate in testing of water fixtures at each of the five elementary schools plus Clover Valley, home to Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center and HomeConnection. The DoH collected 330 samples of water from every water fixture in those schools.  

    This isn’t the first time the district has tested its water fixtures.  In 2005, the district paid $5,000 for optional lead testing on all drinking fountains.  At that time, 17 of the drinking fountains required action based on EPA safe lead levels and were replaced.  In May 2016, the district took random samples from 68 water drinking fountains across the district and the results showed safe levels for drinking at all sites, which also meant that water supply lines were safe. The new tests, paid for by the DoH, expanded testing to include all regular faucets and repeated testing of drinking fountains.  This year's results confirmed the 2016 tests that the drinking fountains were safe and no action was required of the district.

    However, among over 200 regular sink faucets tested, eleven were identified as having levels above the DoH’s recommended level of 20 parts per billion for drinking. These were all either hand washing stations or sinks used in art classrooms. According to the EPA, washing with water above the recommended level is safe since lead in water is not absorbed through the skin. While the DoH said that running the water for 30 seconds in the morning would be acceptable to make them safe, the district quickly moved to replace the fixtures.

    Seven of the water fixtures were in Oak Harbor Elementary, while Broad View Elementary, Hillcrest Elementary, Crescent Harbor, and Olympic View Elementary each had one. Clover Valley had no fixtures needing replacement. The DoH will return to Oak Harbor to retest the eleven replaced fixtures. The district also replaced ten additional fixtures at Oak Harbor Elementary and have four more to replace at Hillcrest that had registered levels between 15-19 ppb. Nineteen more fixtures that registered above 10 ppb will also be replaced by the end of the school year, even though they did not reach the DoH’s the level of replacement.  

    As the results were received, the district immediately notified staff and urged them to remind students to only drink from drinking water fountains, all of which were safe.  Even though the fixtures recommended for replacement would not be used for drinking, the district took precautionary measures and still flushed them each morning, as recommended by the Department of Health, until the new faucets were installed.

    “Whenever the district can take preventative measures to keep our schools healthy and clean, we’re going to do it,” said Brian Hunt, Facilities Director for Oak Harbor Public Schools. “Our team is constantly exploring opportunities to keep our schools safe and energy efficient to provide a positive learning environment.”

    As the school buildings age, the district will continue to take additional actions to monitor and ensure that all buildings remain healthy for students and staff. 



    Where can I review the reports by the Department of Health?
    The Department of Health will publish detailed test results for each elementary school and Clover Valley on their website.  If your school is currently not listed, please continue to revisit their website.

    What is the Department of Health’s recommended replacement fixture levels?
    The Department of Health collected 330 samples during their test.  Each sample reflects a different water fixture. Lead is measured by parts per billion (ppb), which is a small concentration measurement.  The Department of Health breaks down lead contamination from 1-9 ppb, 10-19 ppb and above 20 ppb. According to the Department of Health, the recommended action level is anything above 20 ppb, which requires replacement of the fixture. Oak Harbor Public Schools had eleven fixtures — none of them drinking fountains or “bubblers” — register over 20 parts per billion.  The highest parts per billion fixture was an art sink located at Broad View Elementary that recorded at 50 parts per billion.

    To put this in perspective, the Washington Post reported that Virginia Tech researchers collected 30 different readings in Flint, Mich., in 2015 and discovered the lowest reading was around 200 ppb.

    Do our schools have lead pipes? If not, why are there traces of lead in the water from some of the sinks?
    Our schools do not have lead pipes. The traces of lead detected in the faucets was most likely caused by lead used by manufacturers of brass and bronze fittings or valves and deteriorating solder inside sink fixtures installed prior to 1986 (lead solder was no longer allowed in plumbing after 1986). All drinking fountains were found to be safe, even though they share the same water supply lines with the faucets, which is why replacing older fixtures is addressing the problem.

    What if my child washed their hands in water above the recommended level?
    According to the EPA, human skin does not absorb lead in water, so students who were just washing their hands in the water were safe. In fact, the EPA reports that bathing and showering would be safe for children, even if the water contains lead over EPA’s action level.

    Why did the district volunteer for lead testing if they already paid for testing in 2016?
    In 2016, the district spent nearly $2,000 conducting sample testing of drinking fountains in each of its school buildings. At that time, only drinking fountains were tested since lead in water enters the body through drinking and is not absorbed through the skin. No unsafe contaminants were reported in the samples that were collected, which also meant the water pipes to the schools were safe. However, when the district was notified of the Department of Health’s free voluntary testing program, it took advantage of the opportunity to double-check the drinking fountains and to test hand washing stations and other water faucets.  This was a free service to the district to test all of the elementary school’s water fixtures, including the retesting of drinking fountains. 

    What about testing the secondary schools?
    In 2005, drinking fountains were tested at all of our schools, including secondary schools.  A total of 17 fountains were replaced, including one at the secondary level. The district conducted another optional test in 2016, random sampling 68 drinking stations, and reported all safe levels. This also means that the water supply lines to the intermediate and secondary schools are safe. All of the sink fixtures at Oak Harbor High School and North Whidbey Middle School were installed after 1986 and should not have lead solder. Nevertheless, the district will be lead testing the sink fixtures not previously tested at our secondary schools and Oak Harbor Intermediate as soon as these tests can be scheduled.  At the secondary level, students are directed to drink from regular drinking fountains or use our water bottle filling stations.

    Why were 14 other fixtures replaced if they didn’t register over 20 ppb?
    According to the Department of Health, any sample that registered over 20 ppb is considered an action item and should be replaced as soon as possible.  Fixtures registering 10-19 ppb do not mandate action, however, the Department of Health encourages schools to replace fixtures closer to 19 ppb whenever feasible.  The district already replaced 10 fixtures at Oak Harbor Elementary with another four still to do at Hillcrest (on order) that were between 15-19 ppb. As a precaution, another nineteen with even lower results will be replaced by the end of the school year.  For these nineteen fixtures, daily 30-second flushing is being conducted each morning as recommended by the DoH. The DoH reports that flushing makes them safe — even to drink from. However, they will only be used for hand washing and cleaning.

    How quickly did the district respond?
    Immediate action was taken by the district once the results were received.  The Department of Health shared the results school-by-school over a four-week period.  The district communicated any concerns to the administration and with staff at the schools to ensure normal drinking water practices were being followed. By the end of the four-week period, every sink faucet that required replacement had been replaced by the district’s plumber. Twelve fixtures with levels below mandatory replacement were replaced during spring break and nineteen more will be replaced soon. Until that point, the district is using the daily flushing method on these fixtures as a precaution. This is the act of running cold water for 30-seconds to flush out any traces of lead contamination from the fixture as recommended by the Department of Health.

    Was my child ever at risk?
    The sink faucets were not normally used for drinking water since the classrooms have drinking fountains. The drinking fountains were all safe for normal drinking. Hand washing in the affected sinks was safe since, according to the EPA, human skin does not absorb lead in water.  The only way a child could have been affected was by drinking water from the sink faucets early in the day prior to the faucet being flushed out for the 30-second flushing. Regular drinking of unflushed water from an affected sink could be a concern. However, the district is not aware of any student who falls into this category.

    What should I do if I’m concerned about my child’s health?
    We have no reason to believe that any of our students are affected by the small amount of lead contamination in the former fixtures. However, low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:

    • Behavior and learning problems
    • Lower IQ and hyperactivity
    • Slowed growth
    • Hearing problems
    • Anemia

    If you are concerned, you should consult your medical provider. A blood test is the only way to find out whether someone has elevated lead in their blood.