Lead, Cadmium, and now Arsenic in Seattle School Water

The water supplied to Seattle area public schools is again under scrutiny, and their solutions to the lead problem, performed back in 2004, were sadly designed to deal with only one contaminant. Not long after the lead treatment solution was implemented, cadmium was found at elevated levels deemed unsafe by the EPA.

Now the problem is arsenic, and once again should help you understand why investing in any water purification system that targets only specific contaminants (or specific classes of contaminants) cannot be trusted as a long term solution.

If you are going to invest in some kind of water treatment system, doesn't it make sense to solve the problem once and for all? Why choose a system that you know will be ineffective when the next toxic substance is found in your water? The PWS™ BEV-Series systems will provide you the peace-of-mind you're seeking, removing ALL classes of contaminants and providing 100% pure, bio-compatible drinking water from a system designed to last decades, not months or years.

Seattle schools to turn water off; arsenic detected

By Emily Heffter
Seattle Times staff reporter

Drinking water is being shut off at all 100 Seattle public schools after tests last month found traces of arsenic in the water at several elementary schools.

School-district officials don't think children were exposed to the water with arsenic — at least not enough to affect their health.

All of the fountains at the five schools with traces of arsenic had been shut for repairs before the arsenic was discovered. One — at Van Asselt Elementary — had been turned on again and had been operating for eight school days.

The action comes just a few years after the district began a $13 million project to replace pipes and fixtures amid concerns over high levels of lead and iron in some faucets.

The district will put bottled water in its schools. As the water is delivered over the next two weeks, the district will turn off drinking fountains.

It's not clear where the arsenic came from. Seattle Public Utilities, which runs the city's water system, has tested its water for decades and never found more than a trace of arsenic, well below the allowable 10 parts per billion. Water tested on its way into the schools had a tiny amount of arsenic.

All the school faucets that had unsafe levels of arsenic had recently been installed because of concerns about lead poisoning in the old ones.

Arsenic levels in Seattle Public Schools' water

Federal law prohibits arsenic levels higher than 10 parts per billion in drinking water. All the tests were done last month.

Gatewood Elementary: An out-of-service fountain tested at 11 parts per billion.

Leschi Elementary: An out-of-service fountain tested at 18 parts per billion.

Loyal Heights: An out-of-service fountain tested at 11 parts per billion.

Alternative Elementary School No. 2: An out-of-service fountain tested at 17 parts per billion.

Van Asselt Elementary: A drinking fountain that had been in service for about eight school days tested at 12 parts per billion.

Source: Seattle Public Schools


That doesn't necessarily explain the arsenic, though, since hundreds of the other new fixtures checked out fine.

"Because we do not yet know the source of the arsenic, it is my feeling that we must give families assurance that all possible health risks have been removed," Seattle Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas said at a news conference Monday.

Arsenic is an odorless, tasteless substance that occurs naturally in some groundwater. Just 60 milligrams — one-sixth the size of an aspirin tablet — could kill an adult. In smaller doses, it can cause cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But everyone has some exposure to arsenic in small amounts.

The district will test every water fixture in every school. District spokeswoman Patti Spencer said the cost hadn't been determined.

The federal government recently changed the amount of arsenic it considers unsafe from less than 50 parts per billion to less than 10 parts per billion. The water tested in the five elementary schools contained between 11 and 18 parts per billion.

"At these kinds of levels, the risks are pretty darn low, especially if you've only been drinking for a few days," said Jim White, a toxicologist with the state Office of Environmental Health Assessments.

The discovery of arsenic follows several years of questions about the safety of the water in Seattle's schools. The district shut off its drinking water at the end of 2003 after tests showed high levels of lead and iron in some faucets; some schools still use bottled water.

Parental concerns prompted the district to spend $13 million replacing some pipes and about 1,000 fixtures, most of which have now been installed. The district doesn't specifically test for arsenic, but the substance turned up in broader tests of some of the new fixtures.

The amount of time water remained in the pipes may have affected the arsenic levels, said Ron English, the district's water-quality manager. When the district tested 120 water samples that sat in the pipes for at least a week, 40 tested above safe levels — some as high as 132 parts per billion. Only one of those 40 faucets, at Leschi Elementary, had been in use.

But when the water was tested according to Environmental Protection Agency protocol — using water that had been in the pipes between 12 and 18 hours — water with excessive arsenic turned up in five faucets, at Gatewood, Leschi, Loyal Heights and Van Asselt elementaries and at Alternative Elementary No. 2. The one at Van Asselt was the only one in use.

"Even though it's unlikely that the arsenic is widespread, it is possible that there are unhealthy levels of exposure," said Ed Schwartz, an Alternative Elementary No. 2 parent and member of the district's Water Quality Oversight Committee. Since schools are often closed for more than 24 hours and for a week or a few months at a time, it's possible for arsenic to build up in pipes.

After the lead was found, his committee recommended the district use some levy money to replace all the schools' plumbing. That recommendation is under consideration.

"This is really just confirmation that it's a good idea," he said.

Schwartz said the district should have checked for arsenic sooner, but said officials did a good job being up-front about the problem when they learned about it.

The district planned to send letters to parents and make information available on its Web site, www.seattleschools.org.

But many parents hadn't yet heard the news Monday afternoon.

"I think somebody should have been calling me," said Kameela Passmore, the mother of a Van Asselt first-grader.

Another Van Asselt parent, Karen Do, said that after the lead and iron tests, she doesn't think her first-grader uses the drinking fountain anyway.

"I'm not concerned," she said. "I think the children are pretty much aware."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Also see:

New water quality actions at Seattle Public Schools


Water's arsenic levels seen as only slight risk at schools
(Hmm, I think we've all heard that before!)

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