Our Pledge To You

News

CPS expands testing program after lead found in water at 1 school

CPS Superintendent Forrest Claypool and City Department of Health Commissioner Julie Morita share results of the district's lead-testing pilot program Friday. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/For Chicago Sun-Times

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, a pilot program to test 32 Chicago Public Schools for lead found it in the drinking water of one school — Tanner Elementary, in the Grand Crossing neighborhood.

CPS received the Tanner results Monday, immediately shut off one water fountain, sent water coolers to the school on Tuesday and conducted more testing, officials said at a news conference Friday at CPS headquarters.

After lead was found in two more fountains Thursday, the district sent letters home to parents Friday. As a result, the district will start lead-testing of all 660 district- and charter-run schools — starting in older schools with pre-kindergarten students, officials said.

“Like many other school systems across the country, we have had a heightened awareness of lead exposure to children, and out of an abundance of caution, we started a pilot program in April to test our schools and water for lead,” said CPS Chief Forrest Claypool.

“We’ll be expanding that pilot program to every school in the district,” Claypool added, with 250 schools prioritized to be tested by the end of the school year.

The Flint crisis prompting the CPS testing has its roots in 2014, when Flint changed to water from the Flint River. But it didn’t treat that water with corrosion inhibitors, so lead from aging pipes leached into the water. From 6,000 to 12,000 children there have been exposed to high levels of lead and are at risk for serious health problems. A federal state of emergency was declared. Several lawsuits are pending. And several government officials have been fired or resigned.

The CPS pilot program initially involved 28 randomly selected schools, and four others offered to pay for their own testing. The pilot targeted: schools constructed before 1986, when federal lead guidelines were instituted; schools with pre-kindergarteners, an age group most susceptible to lead poisoning; schools with water pipes already in line for repair/replacement; and those with kitchens where student meals are prepared.

“We took 236 samples, and the vast majority — 218 samples, from 25 schools, had no detectable levels of lead. In six schools, lead levels were below U.S. EPA standards, and one school, Tanner, tested positive at levels above EPA guidelines,” said Claypool.

Schools tested, and their results, can be found at cps.edu/leadtesting.

The elevated levels at Tanner were found in three water fountains. Under EPA guidelines, lead levels over 15 parts per billion are deemed dangerous. One fountain had a level of 19.8. Two others had levels as high as 47.5, and were immediately removed, officials said. Flushing the pipes brought the lead levels closer to guidelines.

Because lead levels were found to be higher in a fountain turned off for a long period, CPS will, along with testing at all schools, institute more aggressive pipe flushing after long school breaks, Claypool said. But CPS is working with the city Department of Water Management to identify long-term solutions, he said.

“We’re going to be doing diagnostics to identify the source of these elevated levels,” said city Water Department Commissioner Barrett Murphy. “But water wants to attract metals and other particles. So if you leave it there without running, it’s going to attract it.”

CPS, in conjunction with the city Department of Health, will conduct an informational meeting Tuesday with parents at Tanner, 7350 S. Evans. Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita said parents are urged to see their health care provider if there are concerns; call 311; or visit www.cdc.gov/lead for more information. She did not, however, feel it necessary to embark on a city or CPS-sponsored child testing program.

“Chicago is lucky. We sit on one of the world’s largest supplies of fresh water. So it comes as no surprise that our water supply is safe,” Morita said. “This is an isolated situation that is being described, involving a small number of fountains at one school.”