Three Guilford County schools test high for lead in drinking water; 1,500 students, many of them low-income, affected

Three Guilford County schools test high for lead in drinking water; 1,500 students, many of them low-income, affected

- in Environment, Top Story

This post has been corrected to reflect that one of the schools is Allen Jay Elementary School, not Allen Jay Preparatory Middle.

Drinking water at three Guilford County schools, including two that predominantly enroll low-income children, tested at or above the EPA standard for lead, according to results released by the school district.

The school district issued a press release last Thursday entitled “Test Results Show Drinking Water Meets EPA Standards.” However, that headline is misleading and could dissuade parents from reading further.

In fact, testing conducted in February showed water from inside Southeast Guilford Middle School tested at 194 parts per billion(ppb)—nearly 10 times the EPA’s action level for schools of 20 parts per billion. Frazier Elementary in Greensboro had concentrations of 45 ppb, more than twice the action level, and Allen Jay Elementary School in High Point reported 19.7 ppb.

All together, the three schools enroll more than 1,500 students.

Greensboro water officials attributed the elevated levels to faucets, which were then replaced.

There is no safe level for lead, and the EPA has set a legally unenforceable health goal of zero. For public water systems, the action level is 15 ppb, slightly lower than the EPA level for schools.

It’s unclear how long the high concentrations of lead had been in the water, said Tina Firesheets, Guilford County School district spokeswoman.

“At those levels, you don’t want kids drinking the water,” said Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, an associate professor at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “Impacts can start at very low exposure levels.”

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure. Elevated levels of lead in the blood can cause delays in physical and mental development, as well as deficits in attention span and learning abilities. Low-income children can be exposed to lead not just in water, but also chipped paint in older or substandard housing.

And many low-income children and those from communities of color attend the affected schools.

  • Allen Jay Elementary students are largely from communities of color. According to state Department of Instruction data, nearly 76 percent of its 301 students are Black or Latinx.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the 515 students attending Frazier Elementary are considered economically disadvantaged. The school, which includes grades Pre-K through 5, is 61 percent Black and a quarter Latinx. Ninety-nine percent of the children qualify for free or discounted lunch. The school was built in 1971.
  • With 963 children in grades 6 through 8, Southeast Guilford Middle School is a majority white school, with 43 percent of students considered economically disadvantaged. The school was built in 1969.

School employees, as well as students, were likely exposed to the contaminated drinking water. In adults, chronic lead exposure has been linked to kidney problems and high blood pressure.

Michael Borchers, assistant director of Greensboro’s Division of Water Resources, said sampled faucets at all three schools were leaching lead into the drinking water. After the fixtures were replaced, the lead concentrations decreased to between 1 ppb and 3 ppb. Greensboro utilities use a corrosion inhibitor system to help prevent lead from old pipes seeping into the drinking water. “We believe our corrosion control program is working.” 

On June 5, the Greensboro utility reported one exceedance of lead—44 ppb, according to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Public Drinking Water database. However, that was the only elevated result among dozens of samples taken this summer.

The district, in collaboration with the Greensboro, High Point, Burlington, Jamestown and Winston-Salem water departments, voluntarily tested 99 schools and 10 district facilities. The district’s testing protocol used EPA technical guidelines, said Firesheets, and was intended to be a precautionary, proactive measure. Unlike public and private utilities, school districts and child care centers are not legally required to test for lead and copper unless they operate their own water systems.

Schools that rely on well water were not sampled because they are already tested monthly.

The Guilford County Health Department was not involved in the testing. The department did not immediately answer questions about how parents should respond to concerns about their child’s health, including how to test their blood levels. A state Department of Health and Human Services spokesman said the agency had received no information from Guilford County Health Department.

MacDonald Gibson suggested that parents who are concerned about their children’s exposure to lead should contact their pediatrician or the Guilford County Health Department. The children’s blood can be tested for lead; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set standards for those levels. Although there are advanced medical procedures to help remove very high levels of lead from the body, in general, it takes at least 30 years to clear even a portion of the contaminant.

“If the children were exposed at any point, they will still have it in their body,” MacDonald Gibson said.