Montana schools take steps to address elevated lead levels in water fixtures

HELENA — Two years ago, the state of Montana instituted a new rule, laying out a procedure for all schools in the state to make sure their water systems are tested for lead. Now, the results of those samples are starting to come in, and some schools are already working to address what they’ve found.

“We’ll do whatever is necessary by the requirements of the DEQ and any other regulatory agency to make sure that we’re in compliance,” said Neal Murray, safety and operations manager for Helena Public Schools.

The rule came from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services in January 2020, and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is helping schools implement it. It’s aimed at reducing early lead exposure in children, which can be linked to long-lasting health effects like learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, developmental delays and stunted growth.

Schools are required to get water samples from every drinking fountain, sinks used for food preparation and other fixtures.

“It’s basically a 250-millileter plastic bottle that the school fills up from any drinking water fountain, kitchen fixture or classroom fixture,” said Greg Montgomery, DEQ’s Lead Reduction in School Drinking Water rule manager.

Each sample is then tested by a lab. If it contains lead concentrations of less than five parts per billion, no action needs to be taken. If it has between five and 15 parts per billion, the fixture needs to be repaired or replaced, but can remain in service if it's flushed regularly. If the lead concentration is higher than 15 parts per billion, the school must immediately remove the fixture from service.

So far, Montgomery says about 9% of samples have been in “Bin 1” – the highest concentrations – and have had to be immediately shut off. Another 20%, in “Bin 2,” have needed repairs or upgrades.

You can find a link to school-by-school sample results here.

The deadline for schools to test their fixtures was Dec. 31, 2021. However, a DPHHS spokesperson said the pandemic delayed much of the sampling, so they are being more flexible and still working with schools. 266 schools have already submitted samples, and another 300 are in the process.

Montana schools take steps to address elevated lead levels in water fixtures

In Helena, five schools have been sampled so far. At Hawthorne and Kessler Elementary and the Project for Alternative Learning, most fixtures had no notable lead concentration at all. Much higher lead levels were present at Rossiter and Warren Elementary. Murray believes that’s because both buildings date back to the 1950s and because they have their own wells, so they don’t benefit from the city of Helena’s filtering systems.

After the sampling results came in, Murray says the district brought in bottled water for students to use.

“That was first and foremost,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we had clean water here while we were doing our testing and figuring out what mitigation processes needed to be put in place.”

They then installed new water filters on each faucet in the two schools. They finally replaced all of the old fixtures with new ones – about 24 at Warren and 30 at Rossiter. After that, they completed follow-up samples that showed no measurable lead from any of the new fixtures.

“After those two tests, we felt it was safe enough to allow them to drink from the filtered water,” said Murray.

Helena Public Schools is set to do sampling at five more campuses over the next two weeks. Murray is optimistic those schools will be in better positions because the only other school on a separate well, Jim Darcy, has a completely new building.

Montgomery urged schools to contact DEQ if they need help with completing the sampling.

“We have grant funding to pay for all the sample analysis,” he said. “I also help them with, when they do get their data back, what those remediation options are, and then also help if we can find funding to help them with those costs.”

You can find more about the Lead in Schools program at the DEQ website.