Lead found in drinking water at schools across Central Virginia

Nearly 800 children under the age of 6 were diagnosed with lead poisoning in 2016. (Source:...
Nearly 800 children under the age of 6 were diagnosed with lead poisoning in 2016. (Source: NBC12)
Published: Apr. 27, 2018 at 8:19 PM EDT|Updated: May. 11, 2018 at 3:39 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A harmful substance could be in the drinking water at schools and no one would ever know.

That substance is lead, and it has been been found in drinking water at school in Central Virginia. Last year, a law was passed requiring all public schools built in 1986 or earlier to test for lead starting last July.

"You can't see it, you can't taste it, you can't smell it," says Dr. Ruddy Rose, the director of the Virginia Poison Center at VCU.

The only way to know if it's there is to test for it.


Chesterfield County was the first to go public with major results.

After spending around $120,000 on testing, so far the county's found lead in the water of 10 drinking fountains across eight schools.

For example, testing at Bon Air Elementary revealed a fountain with more than twice the threshold the state considers unacceptable. It had 51 parts per billion lead.

A fountain near the library of Midlothian High tested 27 times higher than the state's limit at 541 parts per billion for lead.

Chesterfield went above and beyond what the law requires, testing more water sources.

According to data made available, Chesterfield ended up finding at least 215 classroom, science and custodial sinks, fountains and other sources of water flagged for lead levels higher than the recommended threshold of 20 parts per billion.

It's (20ppb) a very small amount - it the equivalent of about 1 penny in $10 million.

"Just because it's in the school doesn't mean all these kids are poisoned. It's a call for action to identify and remediate it," said Dr. Rose.

He says there's a reason schools are being singled out.

Young children are the most susceptible to lead poisoning.

"They absorb more lead from their diet than adults do," said Rose, "and lead affects developing systems in your children, particularly the nervous system. So, the younger the child the more effect the lead is going to have as that child develops."


In Henrico County, about $40,000 has been spent for testing at 21 schools to date. It didn't find any contaminated drinking fountains, but lead contaminated faucets and sinks were replaced or removed at five schools including Ridge, Montrose and Short Pump elementary schools.

Spokesperson Andy Jenks wrote in an email:

Henrico is in the process right now of sampling and testing all of the potable water sources in all of our schools. This is year one of a three year testing plan. We're testing schools in order of their original construction dates (oldest to newest). To date, we've tested all water sources in 21 schools, which means more than 1,360 samples processed (or processing). All sampling is performed in accordance with the EPA's '3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools' and all sampling and analysis is performed by outside consultants. Overall, the tests results have been excellent. Only three samples have required remediation, and none involved any drinking fountains.

One was a sink faucet in a science prep room at Rolfe Middle School; one was an art room sink faucet at Ridge Elementary; and one was an old classroom sink faucet at The Academy at Virginia Randolph. The sink at Virginia Randolph was removed, and the faucets at Rolfe and Ridge were replaced. Additional testing was performed with passing results.

Two samples that failed initial testing and then passed follow up testing were computer server room sinks, one at Montrose Elementary School and one at Short Pump Elementary School. Due to overall lack of use, the sinks in the server rooms at Montrose and Short Pump ES were removed altogether. These sinks are not typically accessed by students.


The City of Richmond school system did not answer respond questions about how many schools have been tested or about the cost, but last year the district shut down two water fountains inside George Mason and Ginter Park elementary schools.

At the time, acting superintendent Tommy Kranz sand "the two fountains that they indicated were high, we took the fountains out of service. And for those two fountains we're providing bottled water. But that was in the spirit of being proactive."

In an email, spokeswoman Kenita Bowers said:

Yes, we began testing at the start of the 2017-2018 school year (October - December 2017). At this time, the results of the testing conducted so far have determined that lead levels at those schools is within all applicable state and federal allowable limits (U.S. EPA Action levels for schools - 20 ppb, U.S. EPA Action levels for homes served by public water systems - 15 ppb).


Hanover County's spent $30,000 on testing. Test results came back after this story initially aired and found that lead was found in six schools.

Click here for the full report.


Petersburg's spent $8,800 and found lead contamination at water sources in four schools including AP Hill Elementary. There were 14 sources of contamination in all and all of them were taken out of service or removed.

The district plans to test again this summer.

In an email spokeswoman, Leigh Ann McKelway wrote:

Testing was completed in fall 2017 of 158 water sources (fountains, faucets, etc.) in Petersburg's 8 schools. 14 of those sources tested higher than allowed. No drinking water sources violated federal guidelines at Westview Early Childhood Education Center, Robert E. Lee Elementary, J.E.B. Stuart Elementary and Walnut Hill Elementary. A total of 14 water sources at Petersburg High, Vernon Johns Middle, A.P. Hill Elementary and Blandford Academy were taken out of service or updated.


"The goal is to have no lead in the water. That's the goal, zero," said Rose.

He says even if you consume some lead from a drinking fountain, it does not mean you are poisoned. That takes exposure over time.

"Certainly you want to reduce the exposure because there's nothing good about lead in the human body. It doesn't serve any purpose. So, you don't want it there," said Rose.

Every local district says they've removed the drinking fountains where they found high lead levels.

In a letter, Chesterfield told parents it was so alarmed by the findings it's going to talk to lawmakers saying, "we believe it should be required to have all sources tested across the state."

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