Rep. Elaine Luria questions Virginia Beach officials on lead in school drinking water

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Congresswoman Elaine Luria questioned top education and city officials in Virginia Beach on the presence of lead in drinking water in local schools, asking for answers on the delay in notifying the public, in a letter released Wednesday.

Elaine Luria

According to a statement by Luria's office, the letter, addressed to Virginia Beach City Public Schools Superintendent Aaron Spence, highlights the seven weeks between the school system learning about the elevated lead levels in school water sources and disclosing that information to the public.

At least 70 instances of elevated lead levels were found at local schools earlier this month.

"The VBCPS website states that the delay in notification was due to the need to secure the impacted sites and develop a communications strategy. Unfortunately, it fails to explain why the sites could not have been secured after a public announcement,” Congresswoman Luria wrote. “I am troubled that developing a communications strategy was prioritized over providing parents vital information related to the health of their children."

In the letter, Congresswoman Luria asked if VBCPS will provide voluntary blood testing for lead concentration to all children, faculty and staff attending any affected schools. She also asked if the school system will commit to notifying these groups and the public within 24 hours of any new finding.

She also expressed concern about information on the VBCPS website that indicates that the Environmental Protection Agency's "actionable level" for lead in water is 15 parts per billion (ppb), as a 2016 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that water fountains in schools have lead levels below 1 ppb.

Luria requested a written response by December 6, and asked that school officials provide public access to the lead testing data by December 13.

The letter's full text is as follows:

Dear Superintendent Spence,

I write to express my grave concerns about the presence of lead in the drinking water of the Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) system and to seek information on how the City is working to ensure the safety of all students, faculty, and staff.

According to your website, VBCPS tested lead in drinking water during the summer of 2019 and received results of lead levels above EPA’s actionable level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) “between mid-September and mid-October.” The website states that senior leadership was made aware of the results on October 25.Twelve days later, and approximately seven weeks after the first findings of elevated lead within the system, you sent a letter to Virginia Beach families informing them that elevated lead levels were found at 61 sites at 27 schools in the VBCPS system. On November 12, VBCPS announced that it had identified lead at an additional nine sites within the system. No explanation was provided as to how these sites were missed during the initial analysis of testing.

The VBCPS website states that the delay in notification was due to the need to secure the impacted sites and develop a communications strategy. Unfortunately, it fails to explain why the sites could not have been secured after a public announcement. I am troubled that developing a communications strategy was prioritized over providing parents vital information related to the health of their children.

I am also concerned about misleading information on the VBCPS website that may create a false sense of safety. Specifically, the website states that “it is important to note that the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] actionable level of 15 ppb of lead in water is markedly below levels that would pose a risk to children.” When the rule was first developed in the 1980s, EPA chose the 15 ppb limit because it determined that was the level utilities could reasonably achieve with the technology of that time, not that this concentration of lead was safe. According to an August 2019 fact sheet prepared by the World Health Organization, “[t]here is no known 'safe' blood lead concentration,” and even low levels of lead can have lasting impacts on child development. A 2016 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that the 15 ppb level for lead does not “adequately protect children or pregnant women from adverse effects of lead exposure” and recommended that water fountains in schools have lead levels below 1 ppb.

I request that VBCPS make public the full raw data of their lead testing to allow independent toxicologists and other physicians and scientists to verify the accuracy of the tests and determine that no other sites have been erroneously identified as below actionable levels. I also respectfully request responses to the following questions:

  1. What was the concentration, expressed in parts per billion, of lead found at each VBCPS site identified as above the EPA actionable level of 15 parts per billion?
  1. What caused the delay between the “mid-September” date when the first results indicating elevated lead were found, and October 25, when senior staff were notified?
  1. Why was the public notified on November 6 when senior staff were notified on October 25?
  1. Why did VBCPS fail to initially identify nine sites tested during the summer of 2019 as having elevated lead levels?
  1. On what basis do you claim that the level of lead found in the VBCPS system is “markedly below” levels that could pose a threat to children? Please provide documentation of correspondence from the Virginia Beach Department of Public Health and the University of Virginia’s Clinical Toxicology Program analyzing the safety of lead in the VBCPS system.
  1. Will VBCPS provide voluntary blood testing for lead concentration to all children, faculty, and staff attending any affected schools?
  1. If elevated levels of lead are found at any VBCPS school site going forward, how quickly can parents, faculty, and staff expect to be notified? Will you commit to notifying these groups and the public within 24 hours of any new finding?

Because of the urgency of these issues, I ask that you provide a written response by December 6, 2019, and that you provide access to the raw data of the lead testing by December 13, 2019.

I stand ready to work with you to ensure that Virginia Beach public schools are safe for all children, faculty and staff. If there is any way my office can help in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me or my staff at (757) 364-7650 or (202) 225-4215.

Sincerely, 

Elaine G. Luria

Member of Congress

Later Wednesday, Spence responded to Luria's inquiry after seeing the congresswoman's press release.

“No one has been or remains more concerned about the presence of lead in the drinking water within some of our schools than I am,” responded Spence. “Within five hours of my being aware of these test results, our facilities team began working and has been working overtime ever since to secure, remediate and retest sites that returned lead levels exceeding EPA guidelines. Once senior leadership had knowledge of water issues, the most accurate and comprehensive information was relayed to the public in the timeliest manner possible. Delivering that information piecemeal without any context or medical guidance would have been, quite frankly, irresponsible.”

VBCPS School Board Chair Beverly M. Anderson also learned of Luria's letter via the press release and said while Luria "has every right to ask questions on behalf of her constituents.... to suggest VBCPS is not always working on behalf of its students and staff is troubling."

“Of course the congresswoman has every right to ask questions on behalf of her constituents, but to suggest VBCPS is not always working on behalf of its students and staff is troubling,” said Anderson, who also learned of the letter via the press release. “Given the lack of legislative guidance around water testing in schools, we took the initiative to develop a testing protocol and have done our best to safeguard the health and safety of students and staff with little to no direction, funding or support. Although the school division does not have a duty to report according to any policy or legislation around this issue, our superintendent believed it to be the right thing to do in notifying our families. We have set an example for the Hampton Roads area regarding our transparency around this issue, and the congresswoman criticizes us for that very thing.”

The school district said since becoming aware of the issue, senior leadership has been meeting regularly with officials from Virginia Beach Public Utilities, the Virginia Beach Department of Public Health, the Virginia Department of Health and others for guidance on water testing procedures, results and how to improve the process in the future.

VBCPS also answered Luria's questions about the testing process and subsequent actions. The district's responses can be seen below:

What was the concentration, expressed in parts per billion, of lead found at each VBCPS site identified as above the EPA actionable level of 15 parts per billion?

The concentration, expressed in parts per billion, of lead found at each VBCPS drinking or food prep site identified as above the EPA actionable level of 15 parts per billion are on our site.

What caused the delay between the “mid-September” date when the first results indicating elevated lead were found and October 25, when senior staff were notified?

When senior staff was notified on October 25, remediation efforts began within five hours, and the focus remains on our current and future testing process. We have engaged a consulting firm to conduct an independent after-action review and we will share the findings of that study once they are available.

Why was the public notified on November 6 when senior staff were notified on October 25?

For a topic this important, it was imperative that we communicate the most accurate and thorough information to all constituents. That meant consulting with the Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Beach Public Utilities for their guidance, assembling a central location for the information and setting up a call center for the community in case they had additional questions after receiving our initial communication.

Why did VBCPS fail to initially identify nine sites tested during the summer of 2019 as having elevated lead levels?

When the contractor who performed the testing reviewed their field notes, they realized that those sites had initially been misidentified. As soon as they made us aware, we notified the affected schools.

On what basis do you claim that the level of lead found in the VBCPS system is “markedly below” levels that could pose a threat to children?

VBCPS worked in partnership with the Virginia Beach Department of Public Health, The University of Virginia’s Clinical Toxicology Program and Virginia Beach Public Utilities to provide information to families via letter and on our website. This language was suggested by multiple medical practitioners with expertise in this area. According to the Virginia Department of Health, there have only been three reported cases of elevated blood lead levels in children in 2019, none of whom were school-aged. Also, none were water related.

Will VBCPS provide voluntary blood testing for lead concentration to all children, faculty, and staff attending any affected schools?

The safety and security of VBCPS’ educational environment is of utmost importance to protect and support students, teachers and staff. Strong partnerships with seasoned experts and professional organizations allow the division to ensure that the school community is provided with the best care. VBCPS is not a health organization, but is pleased to closely partner with the Virginia Department of Health. The Virginia Department of Health does not recommend testing children for blood lead levels solely based on VBCPS’ recent test results, believing that the water lead levels found in VBCPS present a low health risk to students and adults. Should students, teachers and staff within VBCPS’ educational environment have specific, individual concerns, the Virginia Department of Health recommends they see a healthcare provider. Those families who do not have access to a healthcare provider should contact the Virginia Department of Health, who will provide resources to them.

If elevated levels of lead are found at any VBCPS school site going forward, how quickly can parents, faculty, and staff expect to be notified? Will you commit to notifying these groups and the public within 24 hours of any new finding?

Any water source with actionable lead level test results will be secured immediately. VBCPS is committed to sharing accessible, thorough and accurate information. We are working in partnership with the Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Beach Public Utilities to complete all water testing and report the results in a comprehensive and timely manner. For example, as soon as we became aware of the issue with the contractor data mentioned in item 4, we notified affected schools and families. We also believe the state law associated with testing public school water for lead needs to be more specific. Administration will work with our local delegation in the General Assembly to advocate for this change. In the absence of clear legislative guidance at both the state and national levels, we have worked collaboratively with local experts to make certain we are taking appropriate steps with the information we have. We will continue to take every reasonable precaution to safeguard the health of our students and staff and will notify them of any testing and testing results as quickly as possible.

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