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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Spokane schools test water, state agencies look to cut lead risks

The Spokane Public School District is testing the water in all of its buildings in the wake of high lead levels discovered at several Tacoma schools.

The state agencies, meanwhile are launching a coordinated effort with local health departments, schools and water utilities to reduce the risk of lead poisoning from drinking water and other sources.

Kevin Morrison, director of community relations for the school district, said the water in all schools and other buildings the district uses were tested for lead last week. Those tests were ordered after tests from 2015, but only revealed recently, showed several Tacoma elementary schools had unsafe levels of lead in their drinking water.

As many as 13 Tacoma schools have possible lead problems and city officials there are testing some homes, the News Tribune reported. One source of the contamination is thought to be a lead connection between the water main and the service line to the building, known as a gooseneck.

Morrison said Spokane schools were tested for lead in 1989, and for sodium, copper and lead in 1999, and did not show any problems. One advantage Spokane might have over Tacoma, he said, is that all but two schools get water from the same source, the City of Spokane water utility. Tacoma schools get their water from a variety of sources, he said.

Test results should be available in about two weeks, Morrison said. If they reveal any problem, “we’ll mitigate it.” The response will depend on the level of the lead, he added.

The state planned to order all schools to test for lead,  mold and other environmental health risks again in 2009, but the Legislature did not provide the funding for those tests because of the recession. Tests were only conducted on a voluntary basis.

On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the state Department of Health, along with other agencies, to study what it would take to implement that order for school tests next year, and how much it would cost. Beyond that, Inslee wants state agencies to come up with strategies to reduce lead in water, air, soil and homes. 

“We live in a world where lead is all around us,” John Wiesman, secretary of health, said Monday at a press conference to describe the effort. “We intentionally put lead into our environment for years.”

That included mixing lead in paint to make it last longer, in gasoline to make engines run smoother, and in plumbing fixtures, he said.  Lead paint for buildings and toys was banned in 1977, and leaded gasoline in 1996.

Under Inslee’s directive, the Department of Early Learning will lead studies on whether child care providers in buildings older than 1978 should be evaluated for lead exposure. The Health Care Authority will take the lead on efforts to increase lead screening rates of children who are at high risk for lead exposure, generally those from families at or near the poverty line. The Health Department will lead work on a plan to remove all lead service lines and lead components in large public drinking water systems in 15 years.    

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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