DC officials apologize for failure to alert parents about elevated lead levels in water at schools

- For the first time, D.C. leaders have agreed to an interview about the unsafe levels of lead found in public school drinking water. FOX 5 met with Deputy Mayor of Education Jennifer Niles and Department of General Services Director Christopher Weaver after elevated lead levels were found months ago and proper steps were not taken.

“What I’m focusing on is how we never do this again, and an apology for making that failure and for causing the panic and the scare that some parents are feeling about this,” Niles said.

Weaver echoed Niles’ apology. The Department of General Services has taken the most heat from parents for failing to keep them informed, and there are fears proper steps were not taken after high lead levels were identified.

“We were testing and we were taking action,” Weaver said. “We were not reporting it and we needed to do that. I apologize for that. That has been something we have focused on to correct.”

Both said policy changes have come as a result, including a tagging and bar-coding system intended to keep a better, more detailed record of water tests.

“That is something we never had in place before and that is the magic sauce,” Niles said. “That and making sure we’re doing [the testing] annually.”

The Department of General Services is now testing every water source at every public school and recreation center. But for now, there seems to be no plan to address the broader problem – that tests over the years have continued to find sporadic cases where water is unsafe.

According to records, most school water is perfectly fine. But there are cases where water sources have 20 times what the Environmental Protection Agency says is an acceptable level of lead. One elementary school spigot had a level almost 600 times above of what is considered safe. Niles explained that a test done just a minute later on that spigot found acceptable water.

“What our experts think is likely that a particle from soldering or from some other part came through the source, which is why we put a filter on it, so that if there is ever another particle, that it gets caught,” said Niles.

The Department of General Services only installs water filters if dangerous levels of lead are discovered. We asked Niles and Weaver if it is time to put a filter on every drinking fountain in every school. Niles said the focus now is on testing.

“Once the summer comes, then we can step back and we can ask questions more broadly about some of the bigger policy questions,” she said.

When pressed about whether the issue is cost or maintenance, she went on to say, “The reality now is we need to do I think 4,000 samples in a five-week period.”

Weaver said he disagrees that there is a broader problem with water safety, citing the low numbers of unsafe sources in schools.

"In reality, it's relatively small amount," he said. "And I don't want to minimize the importance of clean water, but it's something we can take care of and handle very, very effectively with those low numbers."

The Centers for Disease Control said, "No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body. Because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized."

“At this point, I think we have to characterize the plumbing in D.C. schools as a hazard,” said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech civil engineering professor who first uncovered the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. “It has caused problems on at least three different occasions over the last 15 years, and every time parents turn their back, problems occur.”

Edwards also exposed dangerous lead levels in D.C. water more than decade ago, fighting for years to ensure safe water.

“I think it’s time to either implement a bottled water policy for drinking water or to install filters on selected taps in the schools, so that students can be certain that when they fill their water bottles and get water, that they are not being exposed to excessive lead in drinking water,” said Edwards.

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