State begins testing water in participating schools for lead

State Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, left, and state Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Yorktown, listen Tuesday as officials with the Indiana Finance Authority explain the agency's program to test the water in Hoosier public schools for lead contamination.

Dan Carden, The Times

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Finance Authority has begun testing for lead contamination at water faucets, drinking fountains and other plumbing fixtures in public and charter schools across the state.

A legislative study committee learned Tuesday that 814 Hoosier schools — including 62 in Lake County, 29 in Porter and 11 in LaPorte — have volunteered for the free water-infrastructure testing offered by the state after lead in the soil last year forced an East Chicago elementary school to shut down.

That means, however, 53 percent of Indiana schools are not participating. At least 19 school corporations, including Valparaiso Community Schools, recently spent district funds to conduct school water testing on their own.

Non-participating schools still can sign up. The IFA hopes to test the water in at least 90 percent of Indiana public schools before the academic year ends.

According to the IFA, the state expects to spend up to $4 million in federal funds for the water testing program.

Jim McGoff, IFA director of environmental programs, said results from the first schools to be tested in August found some instances of lead exceeding the 15 parts per billion action level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But in nearly all cases, McGoff explained the lead contamination was traced to older faucets containing lead in their components, or sinks that no longer are used regularly.

He said it's relatively easy and inexpensive for schools to replace a lead-contaminated faucet with a new faucet and to put up signs at idle sinks clearly indicating the water should not be used for drinking.

"Most of our school systems will have perhaps one faucet in their facilities that needs some attention," McGoff said.

"We've tried to educate both the public and the school systems to expect that, and not to be overly worried about receiving a positive test."

He indicated that lead contamination, if any exists, is likely to be found due to the thoroughness of IFA's testing, as officials expect to produce for lead analysis more than 60,000 water samples over the next year.

The agency makes two visits to each participating school. The first is used to locate every water fixture in the building, then the team returns to independently sample the water coming out of each fixture.

They also test for lead in the school's water pipes by drawing a water sample from the fixture located farthest from where the pipes enter the building.

It's assumed the water supply itself is not contaminated by lead based on tests conducted at local water treatment facilities prior to distribution, McGoff said.

Water testing results are provided to the leaders of each school and posted on the IFA website at in.gov/ifa. School officials decide whether to directly share the information with parents and students.

Schools are responsible for the costs of remediating any lead-contaminated fixtures. Though the IFA plans to make low-interest loans available to any schools facing significant plumbing replacement costs, McGoff said.

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Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.