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Schools Test Water Coolers for Contamination by Lead

December 24, 1987|BILL BILLITER and GEORGE FRANK | Times Staff Writers

Following a warning from state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, school districts in Orange County are shutting down or testing their refrigerated water coolers for lead contamination.

Most school districts reported little or no problem Wednesday, saying they only have a handful of the refrigerated water coolers, mainly in administrative areas.

But Santa Ana Unified School District, which has several new or renovated school buildings, reported having about 75 of the water coolers. If those have to be disconnected permanently, some schools would have no drinking fountains and new systems would have to be installed, a district official said.

Over the weekend, Honig asked that all public schools disconnect or cordon off electrically cooled water systems because federal tests in Washington have found unsafe levels of lead in water from such coolers.

Scientists have said the excessive lead may come from lead soldering used to join copper pipes in refrigerated water systems.

Bob Merryman, director of environmental health for the Orange County Health Care Agency, said Wednesday that other refrigerated-water users, such as businesses, should have no immediate concern.

"There is no immediate health hazard," said Merryman. "We are testing the water for school districts, and we'll have those results about the second week in January, and we'll inform the whole community. If there are no dangers (of excess lead) in the school district water, there is not likely any danger in any other (refrigerated) cooler."

Businesses should not worry now, he said, because health problems would require repeated use of the water over a long period, and children using school fountains are at greater risk because of their youth.

According to medical texts, lead poisoning can cause damage to the kidneys, intestinal tract and nervous system.

Merryman said all 28 school districts in Orange County are being contacted by his department. Five of the districts are doing their own water checks, he said. The county Health Care Agency is offering to test water for remaining districts, he said.

The tests involve water for drinking fountains that is cooled electrically in holding tanks. The safety concern does not involve either commercially bottled water or the small, free-standing water dispensers in homes or offices supplied with bottled water. Also, officials said no problems have been found so far with "room temperature" drinking fountains that are common in most older schools and public buildings.

Testing Requested

Santa Ana Unified, like at least two other school districts, has asked the Health Care Agency to test its refrigerated water for possible excess lead.

Santa Ana Unified, with about 38,000 students, is the largest district in the county. The district also is the one facing the biggest potential problem if refrigerated drinking systems must be replaced.

"We don't have water coolers districtwide, but they're in our recently constructed schools," said Santa Ana Unified Assistant Supt. Pat Browning. "I'd say we have about 75 of these coolers. We've asked the health department to sample water from these drinking fountains and to let us have the results."

Browning said that if tests showed unhealthful lead levels in the water, the school district would switch to uncooled water systems. "In the worst case scenario, this would mean about two hours' labor changing each cooler into a regular drinking fountain," he said.

At the Capistrano Unified School District, an official said there are only about a dozen water coolers in the entire school system. One refrigerated drinking system, however, serves the school district's headquarters building in San Juan Capistrano, and disconnection caused some inconvenience.

Report Not Seen

"We've had people carrying Styrofoam cups to the the faucets to get drinking water," the district official said.

Steven Wong, county assistant director of environmental health, said county officials have not seen a report by the Centers for Disease Control and the federal Environmental Protection Agency that reportedly shows that lead levels from refrigerated fountains are as much as 40 times higher than the EPA's proposed safe level of 20 parts per billion.

It was that federal report which triggered Honig's warning to California public schools. Merryman, Orange County's environmental health director, said Wednesday that the federal report is not available "because it's not complete--it wasn't supposed to have been released."

Merryman said the preliminary federal report also lacked a check "on how much lead was in the water before it went into the cooling system."

County health officials surveyed schools by telephone this week. Wong said that there "were quite a number of them (refrigerated drinking fountains) in schools" but that most were only available to faculty and staff.

"Our primary concern is the children," Wong added.

Merryman agreed, saying that schools need to have water checked "because lead contamination is more serious in young bodies."

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