HOMER -- Testing at several south Kenai Peninsula schools has revealed some tap water with lead levels more than 100 times the accepted level, but state epidemiologists say past cases have shown there is little to no health risk.
The highest levels of lead were found at Port Graham School, where water from one faucet was found to contain 2,750 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency says 15 ppb is the level at which action must be taken.
The Port Graham School, in the off-road Alutiiq village at the southern tip of the peninsula, has a history of water problems. In 1993, some tap water levels were at 1,750 ppb. A chemical process to seal the pipes worked initially, but new tests show the chemicals are no longer effective, said David Litchfield, an environmental specialist with the Alaska Department of Environmen-tal Conservation who has worked with the district on the issue.
Homer High School, Paul Banks Elementary School and Homer Middle School all had water tests conducted over the Christmas break. The tests were part of an attempt by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to ensure water quality after high lead levels were found at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School in Soldotna last year.
Borough maintenance workers tested all peninsula public schools in December and January. All the lead and copper results have been received. The only new problems found were in the south peninsula schools.
All three Homer schools showed lead above the EPA action level, but significantly lower than the levels found at Port Graham. The highest level was 99 ppb found in water from an art room sink in Homer Middle School.
While any lead found in school drinking water may alarm parents and community members, the state Section of Epidemiology said the chances that these lead levels could lead to health problems are slim.
Dr. Michael Beller, a medical epidemiologist with the state, said he has tested hundreds of students, staff and teachers in several schools with elevated lead levels in Alaska and never found any evidence of lead poisoning. That included tests at K-Beach in November.
Beller said he can say with relative confidence that students are unlikely to demonstrate harmful levels of lead in their blood.
Even so, parents like Linda Norman of Port Graham are wondering why their kids were ever exposed to any abnormal lead levels.
Norman said she and other parents thought the water was safe and was being tested consistently since the chemical treatment process started. But while McNeil Canyon's and Chapman School's water, which come from wells, are tested regularly, the village of Port Graham has its own water treatment system. It is not mandated to be tested for lead at the school.
"I don't understand why they didn't test it," Norman said. "In my opinion, they should always have continued testing."
According to a November report by the district, the school's water was deemed safe in 1997 after three consecutive tests showed levels of lead and copper were within acceptable limits.
Dave Spence, director of operations for the district, said the district wasn't informed that the product used to coat the plumbing from the inside had a shelf life, however, and therefore the borough was only testing for appropriate levels of the product in the system.
"People had just assumed that the system was functioning and the system was fine," Spence said. "Hindsight's a wonderful thing. We are going to continue to monitor (the water) from now on, even with the new product."
As soon as Port Graham's most recent tests indicated high lead levels, bottled water was supplied to the school, the report said.
However, Norman said if the district knew there was the potential for lead in the water, it should have kept testing. Now, she and other parents want the problem fixed for good and the pipes replaced.
"We've got a lot of upset people in the community," Norman said. "We want them to come in and change these pipes. They thought (using chemicals) would be a cheaper way but they left out a step. They should have made sure they maintained that level of safety."
Other principals and parents are requesting more action as well.
At Homer Middle School, principal Glen Szymoniak said he is not overly worried about the levels the tests found, but said he wants the district to test all the drinking fountains in the school. As well, all the schools have started a routine flush of all water each morning. Fixtures that may be corroding and thus giving off lead likely will be replaced.
David Gibbs, the borough safety manager, said steps are under way to fix the problems.
Testing is ongoing. New chemicals were ordered as soon as the problems were uncovered and are now being used. The borough is investigating filtration systems that may help, he said.
The measures already have yielded positive results at McNeil Canyon, he said Jan. 30.
"That situation has resolved itself. The latest test results are clean," he said.
District officials have scheduled a meeting in Port Graham on Friday to discuss the water status there, and borough maintenance is scheduled to replace corroded fixtures there this summer.
"They will remain on bottled water indefinitely until we have a long-term solution," Gibbs said.
Extended and high exposure to lead has been found to cause irreversible slowing of children's mental and physical development, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A 1986 law banned all but low levels of lead in solder and in water fixtures such as faucets, but many homes still have plumbing that contains lead. Flushing lines by running water before use is recommended for homes as well as public facilities.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation can recommend certified laboratories that test water; for information, call 262-5210.
Carey Restino is a reporter for the Homer News. Peninsula Clarion reporter Shana Loshbaugh contributed to this story.
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