The students at Yellow Breeches Educational Center couldn't drink from the fountains and faucets even if they wanted to — the water's been shut off for years. The school supplies them with bottled water and, with the kitchen lacking water for food prep, their meals are brought in.
Administrators were forced into action after testing revealed the water well that supplies the school, about 25 miles east of Harrisburg, was highly tainted with lead. The building's well water has exceeded the federal lead standard at least 10 times over the past two decades — once by a factor of 24, according to federal data.
Yellow Breeches, a private school that leases space in a building formerly occupied by the public North Annville Elementary School, is among as many as 29 schools and day care centers statewide that have registered excessive levels of lead at least one time since Jan. 1, 2013, according to an Associated Press analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.
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In total, more than 100 water systems serving nearly 50,000 Pennsylvania residents have exceeded the lead standard at least once in the past three years, the data show. In addition to schools, they include municipal water authorities, businesses, mobile home parks, assisted living centers and campgrounds. All of them are small, supplying dozens, hundreds, or, at the most, a few thousand people with water. The state regulates more than 3,000 water systems.
Another school served by its own well, Durham Nockamixon Elementary in the rural Palisades School District in southeastern Pennsylvania, had a lead reading in 2014 of 165 parts per billion — 11 times the federal limit.
The high readings came from a pair of old fixtures in seldom-used staff work rooms, according to Palisades Superintendent Bridget O'Connell. The faucets were replaced and subsequent sampling revealed lead levels below the EPA limit, she said.
Pennsylvania health officials say exposure to lead-based paint chips and dust — not tainted water — is the primary cause of childhood lead poisoning. Pennsylvania ranks fourth nationally in the number of houses built before 1978, when lead was banned from paint. The state Department of Environmental Protection said in February it had reviewed more than 150 public water systems serving more than 6 million people — including water systems in cities with high rates of lead exposure — and that none exceeded EPA standards for lead in drinking water.
While no amount of lead exposure is considered safe, the federal lead rule calls for water systems to keep levels below 15 parts per billion. If more than 10 percent of sampled high-risk homes are above that level, water agencies must inform customers about the problem and take steps to address it, such as by adding chemicals to control corrosion of service lines and plumbing that contain lead.
At Grandview Hospital in suburban Philadelphia, where water was found to contain an excessive lead level during a 2013 test, the solution was to provide bottled water to patients, visitors and staff, replace fountains with bottled water dispensers and filter ice machines in cafeteria and patient areas.
In a statement, hospital spokeswoman Susan Ferrari said every precaution has been taken and Grandview has been working with the DEP and other consultants.
Quakertown Christian School, also outside Philadelphia, swapped out a faucet at its early childhood center in response to an initial high lead reading in 2013. Subsequent tests were clear until last fall, when two of five water samples exceeded the EPA limit. Staff disconnected water coolers and replaced them with two large drinking-water jugs in the main hallway. Finally, last month, the school ripped out the plumbing in the well and boiler rooms and replaced a hot water heater and holding tank.
"We have exceeded what the DEP has required of us in order to protect our children and adults," the school said in a statement.
Officials in the Annville-Cleona School District, which owns the building now leased to Yellow Breeches, have installed a lead treatment system and say they are waiting for permission from the DEP to turn the water back on.
The mitigation system will "remove 100 percent of the lead," Jeff Miller, the district's acting superintendent, said via e-mail. In the meantime, he said, "all staff and students are made aware several times per year of the lead in the water."