The Derry School Board will continue in its plans to mitigate the presence of lead in the water at East Derry Memorial Elementary School, while also endeavoring to calm parents’ fears.
Superintendent Laura Nelson gave an update on the lead issue at the Feb. 16 School Board meeting.
The issue dates back to Nov. 25, 2015, when a routine lead and copper screening by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES) showed results inconsistent with previous water samplings at the school. The school was retested Jan. 18 and the results, released Jan. 26, showed a higher than standard concentration of lead in seven of the school’s faucets.
At that time, the district began working with the DES and Granite State Analytical to develop a corrective action plan. An information session for East Derry parents was held Feb. 1 and fact sheets on lead and drinking water were available for concerned residents.
The fact sheet said the sampling protocol “is mimicking the worst case scenario of lead exposure” and went on to say the risk of lead exposure is very low, and the information was being sent to parents “out of an abundance of caution.” The fact sheet also said that as water is being used frequently when school is in session, the lead concentration will be low.
The board’s corrective action plan includes changing out the faucets in question and installing a phosphate water treatment system, which will be put in during February school vacation. In addition, custodians have been deployed to flush every faucet in the morning, removing the possibility of children ingesting water that has sat overnight.
The fact sheet also said phosphates are used in thousands of water systems around the country and are a proven mitigation for lead in drinking water.
Business Administrator Jane Simard said she met last week with DES, Department of Health and Human Services, the Bureau of Health Protection, the Chief Nursing Officer of Parkland Medical Center, the United Way and other experts. “I expected one person and I was called to the lobby to find eight people,” Simard said. “We discussed what had taken place and determined our course of action.”
Simard said one course of action will be to draft a letter advising parents to have their children tested for lead contamination, either now or during their next regularly-scheduled physical. In addition, a letter will go out to parents once the DES releases its final findings, she and Nelson said.
Simard said while Derry Director of Public Works Michael Fowler and Deputy Director Tom Carrier were not at the meeting, she has been in contact with them and they are advising the district on best practices and procedures.
Board member Ken Linehan observed that East Derry is the only school with this problem, or the potential for this problem, because it is the only school still on a well. The district’s other six schools receive their water from Manchester and it has already been treated, he said.
But board Vice-Chair Brenda Willis, who was conducting the meeting in the absence of Chair Dan McKenna, did not find comfort from that. She said she had researched phosphates and that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it was “generally considered safe.” Willis said, “‘Generally’ is not good enough for our students and faculty.”
Willis posed the question, “What happens if phosphates are discovered not to be safe?”
“If we find that out, we’ll change the system,” Linehan responded.
Willis wasn’t convinced and said, “My preference would be toward gathering more information.”
“The water treatment system is the one several municipalities use,” Linehan said, to which Willis responded, “That does not make me feel better.”
Nelson explained how the phosphates work. “They stop minerals from binding,” she said. “With phosphates, the water will not touch a pipe with lead on it.”
Nelson said the district has two choices: re-plumbing the entire school or going with the phosphate treatment.
She reminded Willis that because the water the district obtains from Manchester is treated, phosphates are in the water for the other six schools.
Willis continued to urge a wait-and-see attitude.
Willis, who has fielded several calls on the issue, was also concerned about information getting to parents. “I want to see parent involvement on the Facilities Committee, and also Principal Kim Carpentino or Assistant Principal Andy Chouinard,” she said.
Nelson pointed out that Linehan and Michelle McKinnon, the two board representatives to the Facilities Committee, are parents and that Simard has remained in communication with Carpentino.
“And parents can always contact us at the office for information,” Nelson said. “It is not our intent to shut anyone out.”
“We are giving information as soon as we have it,” Simard said.
Linehan said, “We have a path forward now. We will follow up with a letter. The more communication, the better.”