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County schools grapple with lead in drinking water

hollywood elementary school is a local school dealing with lead in pipes

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Posted on: May 9, 2024

By SAM GAUNTT

As many as 150 of Prince George’s County’s 209 public schools have lead in at least some water faucets, pipes and hoses, according to school district officials. 

The amount of lead varies among schools, according to Samuel Stefanelli, the school district’s director of building services, with some schools having only one or a few affected fixtures, like water fountains and faucets. Other  schools are more seriously affected, with many contaminated fixtures. 

“First and foremost, we’re making sure the kids are safe,” Stefanelli told College Park Here & Now. “That’s the No. 1 priority of ours, before we fix anything, before we do anything, is to test [the water] and make sure that it’s safe, but if it’s not safe, shut it off and provide another means.”

 Stefanelli added that the district supplies bottled drinking water in schools that are seriously affected by lead. The school district has also installed at least one filtered-water bottle-filling station in each school in the county. 

“Anywhere where we think we have an issue, we provide water for kids,” he said. “My job is to provide safe water for kids — no matter how I get it to them. So until we can tell you your school is OK, they’re going to get some kind of supplemental water.”

The school district’s budget includes an annual allocation of  $200,000 per year to address this issue. That amount is enough to change out the fixtures of four to five schools, Stefanelli said. 

“It’s all about funding,” he said, noting that new schools are built to today’s standards and that , the problem will eventually subside as the district replaces older schools over time.

In addition to grappling with issues of funding, the school district faces the problem of relocating students when plumbing is shut off as a school undergoes renovation, Stefanelli said. 

College Park students attend at least five schools testing for higher-than-allowed levels of lead, according to data published by Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS). The county places the limit at 5 parts lead per billion parts water, while the federal government’s limit is 15 parts per billion.

Paint Branch Elementary has 14 water sources that exceed the county’s limit. Hollywood Elementary has eight water sources testing above that limit, and University Park Elementary has one, according to PGCPS data. 

Stefanelli said if a water source tests above the county’s limit, it will be either shut off or removed completely. Some water sources that are necessary to keep a school operational, such as sinks in classrooms, are retained but have signs labeling them unsafe to drink from. 

According to the county’s data, Berwyn Heights and Cherokee Lane elementary schools have no sources exceeding the county’s limit. 

Parkdale and High Point high schools have eight and nine water sources, respectively, that exceed the county’s limit. Water testing results have not been published for Hyattsville Middle School, which is new, or for College Park Academy, a public charter school. 

Jaclyn Bruner, president of the Hollywood Elementary PTA, said it’s been difficult to get information about the problem as a parent.  

“I’m just kind of frustrated at the lack of information, and the differing amounts of information that we get when you try to inquire about this issue,” she said. 

Bruner said she would like to see the school district and families work cooperatively toward a more constructive approach to the issue. 

“I’m hopeful … that can be the climate that PGCPS operates in, and that it’s not always this feeling like you’re on two sides,” she said. 

College Park resident Christina Toy echoed Bruner’s position and wants more transparency from the school district. 

“I would like more organization and clarity of communication when it comes to the testing of the water,” Toy said. 

Toy, who has two kids in county schools, said the district should reach out to parents when new testing results are published so more parents are aware of the situation. 

The issue mostly affects schools built decades ago that have water fixtures cast in lead molds;  Stefanelli said the casting process caused lead to leach into the fixtures.

Lori Murrow, a former member of the Maryland State Board of Education, said the issue will not be easy to resolve. 

“Being able to change out all of the lead piping in these schools is a massive undertaking, and it’s just not likely to happen,” she said. 

Murrow added that it would be good for families to be informed at the beginning of the school year if lead has been detected in a school’s fixtures 

Stefanelli said the district will shut off drinking water for an entire building that has a severe lead problem. He added that schools with less severe issues are easier to deal with.

“Because we’ll find you have two or three in a school, but it doesn’t really affect the kids’ ability to drink if we just shut those off or remove them completely,” he said. “So that way that school is basically safe.”

College Park City Councilmember Susan Whitney (District 2) said fixing the problem should be a priority but acknowledged it is an “expensive proposition.” 

“Our infrastructure is aging, and this is an unfortunate result of that,” Whitney said. “Would I like to see more lead pipe remediation in our schools? Absolutely. Do I understand what it is to have limits, dollar limits, of what you can do? I understand that, too.” 

Whitney said she would like to see more than one filtered water fountain per school to ensure  student access. 

Whitney, whose daughter attends Eleanor Roosevelt High School, added that she would also like to see the district’s plan going forward for removing lead fixtures. 

“I would love to see a lead pipe remediation plan on a district level,” Whitney said. 

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