Act 66 (2019) requires every school district, supervisory union, and independent school in Vermont to "collect a drinking water sample from each outlet in the buildings it owns, controls, or operates and ... submit the sample to the Department of Health for testing for lead contamination..."
That includes Thetford Elementary School (TES). According the state's Lead in School and Child Care Drinking Water Results website, TES started taking samples on January 28th, 2020. In that first round of testing, eleven out of fifty-four outlets produced samples with lead levels at or above 4 parts per billion (ppb), the threshold at which the state requires corrective action be taken (action level).
The statute requires that "at least five days prior to sampling, the school district ... shall notify all staff and all parents or guardians of students directly in writing or by electronic means of: the scheduled sampling; the requirements for testing, why testing is required, and the potential health effects from exposure to lead in drinking water; information, provided by the Department of Health, regarding sources of lead exposure other than drinking water; information regarding how the school district ... shall provide notice of the sample results; and how the school district ... shall respond to sample results that are at or above the action level."
Parents from seven different TES households were asked and were unable to recall any such notice being given prior to the initial sampling that was done in early 2020. Shannon Darrah, Chair of the Thetford School Board, when asked if the school community had ever been notified about lead sampling before today, replied, "I am going to have to do a little research."
The following outlets sampled on January 28th, 2020 indicated lead levels at or above the action level:
• Art Room Classroom Sink (7 ppb)
• Kitchen Pot Filler East (6 ppb)
• Room 102 Classroom Sink Right (5 ppb)
• Room 104 Classroom Sink (4 ppb)
• Room 122 Counselor Sink (6 ppb)
• Room 220 Classroom Drinking Fountain (9 ppb)
• Room 220 Classroom Sink (4 ppb)
• Room 223 Classroom Drinking Fountain (7 ppb)
• Room 225 Classroom Drinking Fountain (5 ppb)
• Room 226 Classroom Drinking Fountain (6 ppb)
• Room 226 Classroom Sink (4 ppb)
Once actionable levels of lead have been detected, the district then has two options: they can permanently remove the outlet(s), or they can implement a lead remediation plan "that is consistent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools." In the meantime, the statute says, the district "shall prohibit use of" the outlet, and, if the district has chosen a remediation plan, they must maintain that prohibition until a new sample indicates lead levels are below the action level.
The State's website shows that the fixtures for all eleven of these outlets were replaced on June 19th, 2020. John Brown, the Director of Buildings and Grounds for TES, confirmed that this was done with certified lead-free fixtures. However, five months passed before any samples were taken to confirm that the new fixtures had indeed resolved the higher lead levels. After new samples were taken towards the end of November 2020, six of the outlets came back within the "acceptable" range, but the remaining five were "sampled incorrectly."
The Department of Environmental Conservation sanctioned those five outlets to be resampled at the end of January of this year; the resampling was done at the end of February and was analyzed in early March. Of these, three outlets were still indicating lead levels at or above the action level – in fact their levels were even higher than they'd been the previous year:
• Room 223 Classroom Drinking Fountain (10 ppb)
• Room 225 Classroom Drinking Fountain (11 ppb)
• Room 226 Classroom Drinking Fountain (10 ppb)
The Vermont Department of Health website includes a cautionary note, which Brown echoed in his email: "Lead exposure poses a special risk to young children because they absorb lead into their systems more easily than adults do."
The 2019 law mandating schools in Vermont to test lead levels in drinking water came about after the Department of Health conducted a pilot study in 2017 that found elevated lead levels in all sixteen schools that were tested. The report stated:
Because there is no safe level of lead in the body, a Vermont Health Advisory Level of 1 ppb has been established. This is consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that taps in schools should not exceed water lead concentrations of more than 1 ppb ... There is no safe level of lead in the body. Even low blood lead levels in a child's body can slow growth, make it hard to learn, and cause behavior problems.
The CDC concurs, listing "well-documented adverse effects such as: damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, hearing and speech problems. This can cause: lower IQ, decreased ability to pay attention, underperformance in school."
"The good news," according to the CDC, "is that childhood lead poisoning is 100% preventable."
"We have had lead issues on and off," Darrah wrote. And it looks like the district, primarily through Brown, has been working at reducing lead exposure to staff and students for the past year.
The statute says that the school district must notify all staff and parents or gaurdians of students within ten school days if a sample indicates that drinking water has lead levels at or above the action level of 4 ppb, and that an adequate alternative water source must be provided. The January 2020 samples were analyzed just six days before TES switched to remote learning on March 18th, 2020 – a shift which was only supposed to last a couple of weeks, but as we all know, lasted much longer. Perhaps it was the unexpectedly vacant classrooms and hallways last spring that made a school-wide notification seem unnecessary?
When the results came back this March, however, revealing that three of the outlets still had elevated levels of lead, parents and guardians were notified – albeit with a slight delay. The email they received on April 2nd was forwarded on by administrative assistant Bridget Veracka at the bequest of John Brown.
Brown was very responsive when asked about what had already been done, what was going to be done, and why there had been a delay in communication about it:
Because the sampling bottles hold more water than the fixtures, this tells us that the contamination is in the piping, not the fixtures. I received the results from the State of VT this past Tuesday and put the three fixtures out of service that day as well as notified faculty and staff. Parents were also supposed to be notified but there was some confusion with Chance out on medical leave and a substitute in his place. My apologies for the lack of timely communication but please know that we took immediate action to protect the students and staff. Because that particular wing of the school is problematic our plan is to take all of the drinking fountains out of the classrooms. In the short term, we will be installing a bottle filler/fountain in the hallway near the office... We are working closely with our licensed water operator, P2 Environmental, and our contact with VT Agency of Natural Resources to remedy this issue as soon as possible.
For now, parents are likely still digesting the news that some of their children may have been exposed to lead on a regular basis for the past seven months since returning to in-person learning – and that at least some people in the school, school board, or supervisory union were aware of it.
Emailing your questions and concerns to the TES School Board (firstname.lastname@example.org) will get your correspondence put onto the upcoming agenda. Then mark your calendars: the next school board meeting will be on Tuesday, April 13th, at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom.