Rowe Elementary School
Amanda C. Rowe Elementary, built in 2018, is the Portland Public Schools' newest school, but had as many as 11 fixtures show elevated levels of lead in water. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)
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State-mandated testing in Portland schools has revealed elevated levels of lead at almost every public school in the city.

Another round of testing to compare and verify the initial testing is being scheduled. In the meantime, all fixtures that have shown elevated levels of lead – including 80 fountains and sinks – have been turned off and posted with signs indicating they aren’t for drinking.

Xavier Botana
Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana: “We are going to remediate this baseline. We expect to see very few instances (of elevated lead) going forward.”

The only school that didn’t show an elevated lead level was Cliff Island, the city’s smallest school, where only one sink was tested. Results from Casco Bay High School were still pending as of last week. 

The testing is mandated by LD 153, “An Act to Strengthen Testing for Lead in School Drinking Water,” which was enacted last year. It is required for all water fixtures except science lab and custodial sinks since they are not deemed to be for drinking water. The law gives Maine schools until May 31 to make their test results public.

The Portland Public Schools has been testing its water for lead since 2017. But newly implemented testing methods are much more extensive, with a different benchmark. Previous criteria from voluntary testing by the School Department only flagged levels over 15 parts per billion, while new requirements set the standard at 4 ppb or greater.

The highest concentration of lead was 81.6 ppb, according to Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana, in a cappuccino machine at Deering High School.

Two of the department’s oldest buildings – Longfellow and Reiche elementary schools – exhibited the most-elevated results: Longfellow showed elevated levels of lead in 16 of the 18 water fixtures tested, including three that were above 15 ppb, and Reiche showed elevated results in 18 of 30 water fixtures, also with three above 15 ppb.

Since 2017, PPS has replaced 12 drinking fountains due to elevated levels of lead found in the department’s own tests, according to Steven Stilphen, director of facilities planning management and maintenance for the schools.

Botana called this first set of results a baseline for future testing. “We are going to remediate this baseline. We expect to see very few instances (of elevated lead) going forward,” he told the School Board on April 12.

PPS officials explained the district plans to do the second round of testing on all fixtures that came back above the standard after conducting routine maintenance, such as flushing and additional aeration. If high rates of lead persist, more drastic changes will be made to those fixtures by either replacing them or installing filters. 

The School Department is hiring outside environmental health consultants to help determine the future maintenance decisions, Botana said.

The expectation, Stilphen said, is that more fixtures will meet the standard of under 4 ppb in the second round of results. He said previous testing has shown 60 to 70 percent of tests return to standard levels when a fresh draw is taken for a follow-up test.

“I fully expect that Rowe (Elementary School) will come back with a totally different look,” he said.

Rowe, one of the district’s newest schools, showed 11 cases of elevated results out of 44 tests, including eight drinking fountains. Stilphen said Rowe’s levels of lead were low – less than 1 ppb – when it was built in 2018.

“It’s critical to flow the fixture long enough,” he said. “And if you take the test and you don’t flow it long enough, you’re going to get a false reading of lead.”

The second round of testing will include Portland Adult Education and the central office as well. Stilphen said that lab results are currently backed up several weeks throughout the state.

In response to a question from School Board member Adam Burk, Botana said no fixtures that were remediated in the past are now showing elevated levels of lead.

Board Chair Emily Figdor acknowledged that it seems to be the oldest schools with the highest levels of lead, and added that while she understands the expectation that levels will appear more normal upon retesting, “I can’t underscore how important it is to get to the bottom of this and take all the steps necessary to ensure that our students and staff are not exposed to lead in their drinking water.”

Lead has a long list of negative health effects, particularly on children, including learning problems, slowed growth, hearing problems, and anemia. Pregnant women can pass accumulated lead to their unborn children, and adults exposed to lead can suffer from reduced kidney function and cardiovascular effects, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Full results of the initial lead tests, including the specific fixtures that showed elevated levels of lead, are available on the Portland Public Schools website.