Portland schools use bottled water after lead scare

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Story highlights

  • Portland, Oregon is testing drinking water at 78 public schools after elevated levels of lead were found
  • Critics say officials were too slow to inform parents of the problem

(CNN)Public schools in eco-friendly Portland, Oregon, have now joined Flint, Michigan, and other U.S. cities in facing concerns over lead in their drinking water -- and that officials have been slow to acknowledge the problem.

The city's schools are providing their 49,000 students with bottled water after tests in March showed unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water in some schools.
    The school district announced Friday it was shutting down drinking fountains while it conducts testing at all 78 schools this summer. Lead levels at two schools were found to have exceeded the maximum contaminant standards issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
    School cooks will use bottled water for all food preparation and the cafeterias will use disposable plates and utensils for the remainder of the school year, the school district said. The school year ends June 9.
    "The health and safety of our students and staff is paramount. I appreciate the quick response over the weekend to implement an immediate fix," says Portland Public Schools Board Chair Tom Koehler. "It's clear we have more work to do to review our testing protocols. The board will work with the superintendent to make sure this happens expeditiously."
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    The public, however, has been voicing concerns that school authorities took too long -- more than two months -- to notify parents that there were issues with the water at at least two schools. Authorities tested the water at Creston and Rose City Park elementary schools on March 22 after parents requested it. Water in 14 fixtures out of 92 exceeded the EPA maximum contaminant level for lead under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the district said.
    But the schools only notified parents at Rose City Park and Creston last week about the elevated lead levels.
    Following a special school board meeting Tuesday, parent Mike Southern told board members and school officials that kids had been put at risk because of a "failure of leadership." The Oregonian newspaper reported that Southern took special aim at Carole Smith, superintendent of the city's schools.
    "School board, you need to act," Southern said, to applause from the crowd. "Carole Smith, you need to go."
    More concerns have surfaced since the Oregonian reported prior testing found elevated lead levels at 51 public schools since 2009. The highest lead readings were 16 times the federal level, the Oregonian reported. District officials have not said why they conducted the tests or what steps were taken to ensure safe water, the Oregonian reported.
    Smith promised the district would do better at keeping the public informed.
    "In addition to providing safe drinking water to all of our students, we will be taking immediate action to examine the protocols and procedures that resulted in delayed notification of our families and delays in shutting off impacted water sources," she said. "We are taking all of these steps out of an abundance of caution for our students, our teachers, and our staff, as we work to determine whether additional schools have elevated levels of lead in the drinking water."
    Starting next week, public schools will work with Multnomah County to test Creston and Rose City Park students for levels of lead in their blood, the district said.
    The district said it has replaced two fountains and sinks in two rooms at Rose City Park and both now meet the safe-water standard. Sinks with high lead levels in two science classrooms at Rose City Park are now posted with signs instructing students not to drink the water because the source of lead is the piping and replacing it would be too costly, the district said. The district said it is also working at replacing sinks and fountains at Creston.
    The EPA typically recommends a lead level below 20 parts per billion for schools. Portland Public Schools said they have set a more stringent requirement of 15 parts per billion.