School districts divided on testing water for lead

Cara Lombardo & Dee J. Hall
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Part Two

Milwaukee says it has removed lead service lines leading to all of its public school buildings. Madison is thought to be the first city in the nation to remove all lead service lines from its water utility service area.

Milwaukee plans to focus $2.6 million from a new $14.5 million DNR program to begin replacing lead service lines leading to 384 licensed day care centers and 12 private schools in the city. In the meantime, the Milwaukee Health Department has advised those centers to reduce lead exposure by flushing water before using it and consider using only filtered or bottled water for preparing formula.

An additional 17 Wisconsin communities ranging from Antigo to Waterloo plan to use money from the program to replace lead service lines leading to their schools and day care centers.

School officials in Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts also have found high lead levels in the drinking water at hundreds of schools.

And day care centers — where infants could be fed baby formula made with tap water or toddlers could eat food cooked in lead-laden water — are of particular concern.

Rep. LaTonya Johnson, a Democrat from Milwaukee, operated a day care business out of her 90-year-old home for several years before running for public office. She recently spent $10,000 to replace corroded pipes throughout her northwest side house, which is served by lead service lines.

Johnson said she used a cooler to provide water to children in her care, but not every day care provider does.

“I’m sure people use sink water,” she said. “It’s right there.”

In the Lead Contamination Control Act, the EPA recommends that schools test water at each cold water tap — although no frequency is mentioned — share abnormal results with the public and take action to remediate any problems. But these are not requirements.

News investigations have shown that administrators in Newark, New Jersey, Portland, Oregon and Ithaca, New York knew about lead in water at schools for several months or years before the findings became public. Lambrinidou, the Virginia Tech researcher, and others decried the “regulatory vacuum” surrounding water testing in schools in a 2010 paper titled Failing Our Children.

“If you’re a parent … it’s better to know that they’re not doing much than to have false comfort that the schools are taking care of them,” Lambrinidou said.

A Center survey of all 424 Wisconsin school district superintendents revealed a mixture of attitudes toward identifying and mitigating lead hazards. Most chose not to comby plete the survey at all.

The 47 respondents were split on whether there should be a statewide requirement that all public schools test their water for lead. While some do test — either voluntarily or because they have private wells — others said paying for testing is simply not an option.

A Fox 6 News investigation in May surveyed the 10 largest school districts in southeastern Wisconsin, asking if they had tested their schools for lead. Six answered; all said “No.”

Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, said most of his members support water testing. But if it identifies lead hazards that require costly remediation, he said, “We feel like there ought to be some federal support and state support to do that.”

When officials at Riverside Elementary School east of Wausau discovered that lead from pipes in its foundation was leaching into the water, they opted to remove the school’s drinking fountains entirely. Assistant Superintendent Jack Stoskopf said the school relies on a filtration system for tap water and has spent about $1,000 a month over the past 10 years on bottled drinking water.

“That’s far less expensive than tearing up the foundation of the school and tearing up the pipes,” he said.

Crystal Wozniak, who lives in Green Bay with her 4-year-old son Casheous, said she tried to avoid lead in drinking water when deciding where he would attend preschool. Casheous was lead poisoned when he was 9 months old, possibly from paint.

“The water at a school may be more harmful because they’re ingesting the water, and the food there is made with the water,” she said. “All the kids aren’t necessarily going around licking the walls, but they’re drinking the water.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates

Wisconsin schools, day care centers slated for lead service line removal under new DNR program

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources launched a $14.5 million program to help “disadvantaged municipalities” replace lead service lines. Of the 38 recipients, 18 communities, including Milwaukee, planned to use at least some of the money to replace lead lines leading to schools and day care centers.

Below is a list of the communities and the estimated number of schools or day care centers with lead service lines slated for replacement under this program:

Antigo — 4 of 4
Ashland — 5 of 5
Clintonville — 2 of 10
Eagle River — 10 of 10
Town of Florence — 2 of 10
Manitowoc — 15 of 15
Marshfield — 10 of 20
Milwaukee — 400 of 400
Monroe — 5 of 5

Mosinee — 2 of 2
Park Falls — 5 of 5
Platteville — 2 of 2
Princeton — 4 of 4
Randolph — 5 of 5
St. Francis — 2 of 5
Sheboygan — 11 of 11
Stratford — 4 of 4
Waterloo — 3 of 3


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