38 Indiana water systems topped EPA lead limit

(WISH Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The water system for a western Indiana high school is among nearly 40 in the state that have exceeded federally allowable lead levels at least once since the start of 2013, an analysis shows.

The heightened lead levels in the water systems for North Vermillion High School and Baugo Community Schools, in the northern Indiana city of Elkhart, are particularly troubling because of the harmful effects lead can have on the development of children.

An Associated Press analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data shows that lead levels exceeded the government’s allowable level of 15 parts per billion at least once between Jan. 1, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2015, in 38 water systems in Indiana and nearly 1,400 nationwide.

North Vermillion High School’s water had 16.8 parts per billion in its most recent test last year. But an earlier test result showed lead levels more than three times the EPA’s action limit.

Interim superintendent Dr. Bruce Hatton said that peak reading came after the water pipes sat idle during a two-week school break, which allowed lead to leach into the water. Crews have since replaced some of the water lines and taken other steps that reduced lead levels, he said.

The district about 30 miles north of Terre Haute currently uses wells to provide water for the 750 students and staff at its high school and adjacent elementary school. But it will install a water line this summer linking it to the nearby town of Cayuga’s water plant to address its other water problem — nitrates, a chemical that infers with the blood’s ability to carry oxygen and typically comes from farm fertilizer runoff.

“We’re doing it for the kids and we’re doing it for our schools,” Hatton said.

Officials from Baugo Community Schools weren’t available to comment because the district was on spring break.

The ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been without tap water for months, has highlighted how lead-tainted water can poison children. Even low levels have been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention and academic achievement.

Of the 36 other mostly rural Indiana systems that tested high for lead, some provide water to mobile home parks and churches with day care centers, the AP analysis found.

But just a fraction of schools and day care centers nationwide are required to check for lead because most get their water from municipal systems that test at other locations.

Although most schools aren’t required to test their water, they should consider doing it anyway in light of Flint, said Margaret Frericks of Improving Kids’ Environment, an Indianapolis nonprofit that works to reduce youngsters’ exposure to environmental hazards.

“Why not test and show that your water is free of lead? We’re hearing about this issue all the time and you’d think you’d want to allay those fears,” said Frericks, the group’s program manager.

One of the Indiana utilities that have exceeded the federal limit since 2013 is the Greentown Water Utility, which serves about 1,000 customers. That utility near Kokomo recently installed a pumping system that sends phosphates into its water to inhibit lead water line corrosion as part of its plan mandated by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to address its lead levels.

Bryan Klein, the utility’s superintendent, said the pumping system has been in operation for about three weeks and the utility’s phosphate levels “are exactly within the desired range.”

Greentown’s water woes spurred the Eastern Howard School Corp., which gets its water from the utility, to test its water. It found elevated lead levels in the water coming from some of its sinks and drinking fountains and temporarily stopped its 1,500 students from using that water in February.

The district has since adopted a protocol of flushing its water lines each morning before students arrive to reduce its lead levels, and that appears to be working, said Jennifer Sexton, Howard County’s public health nurse.

IDEM spokeswoman Courtney Arango said the state agency “is committed to assisting schools with sampling and analysis if lead exceeding the action level is discovered within their internal water infrastructure.”

Eastern Howard’s lead testing experience and response will be the subject of a May presentation before the Indiana School Boards Association, said Julia Slavens, the association’s legal counsel.

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