HOLTON — Out of an abundance of caution, students and staff are drinking bottled water until the source of the issues causing trace levels of lead and copper in Holton Elementary’s water is determined.
“I’m pleased at the precautions we’ve taken just to be proactive,” said Beth Smith, Holton Elementary’s principal. “I’m a parent as well and I’m not worried.”
Robert Davies, superintendent of Holton Unified School District 336 since July, sent a letter home to parents on Monday, explaining the results of water sample tests and what steps were being taken to address the issues. He said the Kansas Department of Health and Environment hasn’t recommended the school be closed or issued a boil order.
However, in a letter dated Dec. 8, KDHE officials have recommended running the water in the sinks before classes begin to flush the pipes.
“Our action plan is pretty set,” Davies said. “All we have to do is flush the water. We start at the kitchen, because it’s the closest one. Every sink, we just go through and turn them on and then go through the whole building. We’re flushing for 10 minutes, I don’t know if that’s enough or not. Ten minutes every day ought to be pretty good.”
While only traces of lead were found in the mechanical room’s water, KDHE staff also recommended the district follow EPA guidelines for reducing lead in the school’s water system.
Holton Elementary’s custodial staff began noticing a light blue ring that had been tinting the porcelain toilet bowls in January of this year, about six months after the building opened for the first time in August 2016. He said their efforts to remove the rings with standard cleaning products were unsuccessful.
Although they couldn’t find the exact cause of the blue-hued rings, Davies said, contraptions were installed to prevent water back-flow from any drains or hoses in the school’s mechanical room and steps were taken to prevent any cross-contamination with chemicals stored in that room.
When those efforts didn’t stop the blue rings from appearing on the toilets over the summer, the city of Holton collected five water samples in October from several sinks and a water fountain, according to information provided by Davies. He said the results of the water fountain sample were released in mid-November and showed traces of lead and copper that were below the levels that required further action.
The lead levels in the mechanical room are slightly above the 20 parts per billion, or ppb, actionable levels, but Davies said that room is off-limits to students.
The other sinks in the kitchen, a kindergarten room and a lower level sink tested below detection or 1 ppb levels.
The copper levels in the sinks, however, are higher than the 1,300 ppb that require action to be taken as those levels range from 2,900 to 3,300 ppb, according to information provided by Davies.
But even with traces amounts of lead and copper that don’t pose a health risk, Davies said he wanted to be overly cautious and have students, staff and food service workers use bottled or filtered water until the source of the problem can be isolated and resolved.
Mike Adkins, USD 336 food service director, said his staff isn’t preparing food that needs a lot of water, adding that only one menu item this week required added water.
“The cooking is really a minor issue,” he said. “The real inconvenience comes in sanitizing, washing fruits and vegetables, and that does require a volume of water.”
For the four days next week before the two-week holiday break, Adkins said he plans to buy pre-washed fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a slight increase in price,” he said, “but nothing really significant.”
Davies said he’s also been working closely with the construction, architect, engineering and plumbing companies that built the elementary school as part of the district’s $21.5 million bond issue approved in May 2014.
He said those companies are helping to pay for the water and the delivery costs.
Samco Inc., of Topeka, installed the copper plumbing in the school, Davies said, and is helping pay for the water. He said they want to get to the bottom of the water situation.
“They’re up front,” he said. “They want to come in and do some water sampling and help us along with that but at the same time help us figure out what’s going on.”
In the meantime, Davies said he hasn’t heard any complaints from parents or patrons about the water situation.
Christina Murphy, a newly-elected member of the Holton USD 336 board of education and the mother of a Holton Elementary fourth-grader, said she’s confident Davies and the other people he is working with are handling the situation appropriately.
“I think they’re doing their best to get to the root of what’s happening,” she said, “and doing the best to suffice while that’s happening with the bottled water and bringing the other water in.”
Davies said he didn’t know exactly when the district will know what is causing the trace levels of lead and copper in the school’s water system.
Contact reporter Angela Deines at (785) 295-1143 or @AngelaDeines on Twitter.