In the month since Oregon kids left school for the summer, contractors have moved in. There are always summer workers fixing things in school buildings, but this summer they're testing the water for lead.
The testing starts at 6 a.m. at Bonny Slope Elementary so that some of the work is done before kids show up for summer daycare. Plumbing and heating foreman Brent Tolliver meets the lead testers at the front door.
"If we can catch the kitchen and this area right up here in front first — they have a daycare that starts at 7," Tolliver said to Rachel Wilson and Eli Skiles.
Related: Lead In The Water
They're the contractors with PBS Engineering & Environmental. During the school year, Skiles is a student at George Fox University. Wilson is headed into her senior year at Portland State. Both are science majors.
"I actually started as an intern here and started this right away," Wilson said with a nervous laugh.
This summer, contractors like Wilson and Skiles are sampling water in schools all over Oregon and Washington. Districts throughout the Northwest are responding to the discovery of high lead levels in Portland, Beaverton and Tacoma, among other places.
Many schools are already done with their lead testing. Some, like Portland Public, aren't allowing media to watch.
Wilson starts the morning at Bonny Slope Elementary by ripping open a box of bottles, taking out a few and writing codes on them.
Wilson turns on the faucet and fills one bottle with the first water that comes out. She then lets the faucet flow for about 30 seconds before filling a second bottle. Wilson said she's compared her 30-second count to a clock, and she gets quite close.
This may not seem that hard. Turning on a faucet and counting to 30, right? That's not why Beaverton is using contractors, according to district foreman Tolliver.
“We hired it all out ... because there’s a lot of work in keeping chain of custody. When the samples come back, we need to know exactly what faucet that was drawn from,” Tolliver said.
Beaverton officials said the contract with PBS is for $190,800 for sampling and testing.
Wilson and Skiles work the same way at every school they go to. They follow a map of fountains and sinks. Each fixture gets two bottles assigned to it. Sometimes they find a fixture that got left off the map, and they have to adjust the numbers.
"The health room?" Skiles said, looking at the map with two bottles in his hands.
“Oh, I mean 13-14," Wilson said, allowing for a fixture that wasn't identified on the school map.
Skiles corrects the numbers on the bottles he's holding, “Oh, here I’ll scratch that off.”
“It doesn’t really matter anyways,” Wilson responded.
What Wilson means is that it doesn’t matter what order they go in – so long as the numbers on the bottles correspond to the fixtures the water came from.
Skiles and Wilson focus on collecting water and labeling bottles accurately. He says the testing is someone else’s job.
"There’s a different crew for that. Someone picks it up and then takes it to the lab for testing. And the engineers there do that,” Skiles said.
This Beaverton elementary school is less than 10 years old, so the likelihood that lead is a problem is pretty remote. You might think testing here isn’t necessary.
“I thought that at first," admitted Tolliver. “But because how critical this can be, it was important to get a baseline in all of our schools to start. I can see the justification for it. Without testing every faucet, there was no way to guarantee that all our kids are safe.”
Public health officials have said that kids are more likely to be exposed to lead at home — or through lead paint. Not that it excuses high lead levels at in school drinking water.
Skiles and Wilson are doing nearly all the water sampling in Beaverton’s dozens of schools. It’s repetitive, even a bit tedious. But they feel like they’re helping protect public health.
“Well, we know it needs to be done right so that people can get the results back. And in a sense, we’re helping, but it definitely needs to be done right," Skiles said.
Wilson agreed, “I feel like it’s an important thing to do, and it’s good that all the school districts are getting this testing done."
Beaverton is waiting until it gets all the results — from every conceivable drinking water source in all of its buildings — before releasing any information.
Portland Public is testing all 80 or so of its buildings. It has released results for 24 school buildings so far. All had elevated lead somewhere.