Students starting school this week in St. Joseph — a town whose entire drinking water system was replaced earlier this year — must carry bottled water because the state and a university lab found extraordinarily high levels of lead and copper in Tensas Parish elementary and high schools.
The first sip from one of the high school water fountains detected lead at 402.6 parts per billion – about 27 times the legal limit of 15 ppb, according to an analysis by the Virginia Tech lab whose June 2015 discovery of lead in the Flint system has embroiled Michigan.
Lead affects the part of the brain responsible for abstract thought, attention and memory. It is particularly dangerous for children.
The Louisiana Department of Health found lead readings not quite as high but exceeding the level that requires action at three water fountains and the kitchen tap used for cooking. Additional samples were taken Friday and likely will be drawn again in a week.
Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state health officer, fears that as St. Joseph was harbinger of a growing health problem across the state caused by small towns being unable to keep their drinking water systems maintained, the lead findings at the two St. Joseph schools presage similar issues for Louisiana aging school structures.
“I expect we will find some lead in the schools,” Guidry said.
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In the meantime, Guidry told The Advocate Wednesday that the Tensas Parish children are not to drink the water at school.
“They’re pretty accustomed to not drinking from water fountains anyways because of the problems they’ve been having,” in the northeast Louisiana town, Guidry said.
Lead readings St. Joseph’s drinking water in 2016 prompted Gov. John Bel Edwards to shut down the 90-year-old system for the town of about 1,000 residents. New pipes, pumps and filters were installed – at a cost of about $10 million for Louisiana taxpayers – and the water was turned back on in March. The new system ensures water arrives at its destination pure and clean. But the building owners are responsible once the water passes the meter. Many of the elderly and low-income residents can’t afford to repair the plumbing in the structures built before the 1970s when lead pipes and lead solder were commonly used.
The two public schools serve the whole of Tensas Parish and have about 500 students, according to the Department of Education.
Tensas Parish School Board President Paul Nelson was out Wednesday, according to his office, and was unavailable to answer questions.
But the School Board stated in a release that the schools were working “with the LDH to resolve these issues and ensure good quality water is available.” In particular, the schools would regularly and “aggressively flush” the lines, distribute water bottles and prepare meals using water shipped in from a clean source.
“Until the lead levels return to acceptable limits, an alternate source of water must be provided to the students of these two schools,” the LDH letter to the school board states.
A group of Southern University students, working with Virginia Tech scientists made the collections at the schools and in some vulnerable St. Joseph homes earlier this summer, said Janie Jones, director of St. Joseph Disaster Relief & Research Task Force. She had worked in Flint with Virginia Tech’s Dr. Marc Edwards, who found lead in the water there. Jones asked the School Board to meet with Edwards.
The dramatically elevated levels found by Virginia Tech likely came because the water had been sitting in the pipes unused without the children in school. That allowed more lead to seep into the standing water.
Running water treated with an anti-corrosive chemical through the pipes, called flushing, already is bringing down some of the lead levels, Guidry said. The chemical coats the inside of the pipes and keeps the pipes from leeching lead.
In addition, the fountains were old and had lead fixtures, Guidry said. Those fountains have been replaced.
The state’s test results in August while still shocking – twice the standard – weren’t as dramatic as those found in the samples Virginia Tech took in July. Guidry says that indicates that flushing and new fountains help.
“I expect we’ll see lower levels (of lead and copper). If not, we have other options,” Guidry said.
The most obvious – replace the buildings’ old pipes – is costly. “It’s not easy to change out pipes,” Guidry said.
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The Legislature earlier this year ordered Guidry’s office to specifically test a dozen schools around the state. It’s part of a pilot that could lead to the state regularly checking the water inside school buildings as opposed to the current practice of periodically checking unless a problem is suspect.