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Parents still worried about lead in water at city schools

Boston Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang spoke to reporters Monday after a meeting on school water.
Boston Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang spoke to reporters Monday after a meeting on school water. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Officials attempted on Monday to reassure parents that their children are not in danger after tests found elevated levels of lead in water samples from eight Boston public schools.

Those water fountains have been shut off and bottled water has been brought into the affected schools, officials say.

Sean Palfrey, medical director for the Boston Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, said at the meeting that levels of lead found in water from those schools were low enough that children would have to drink “an enormous amount” for it to have any adverse effects.

“So much that they would never possibly drink it that way,” he said.

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The human body is effective at flushing out small amounts of lead through urination, he added.

Despite such reassurances, some parents expressed frustration that schools have not communicated more quickly and thoroughly about lead levels in water.

Anna Ross, whose son and daughter attend Mather Elementary School, where elevated lead levels were found, asked why parents were first told two months later and not given a full explanation until last week.

“How can I trust you again?” she asked. “What kind of measures are you going to put into place? How are you going to help me believe that you are really giving me the information I need?”

Kim Rice, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations, agreed that the district did not respond quickly enough to inform families.

“We have to earn your trust,” she said. “We have to earn the trust of our families again.”

Speaking to reporters outside the meeting, attended by about 50 people at school headquarters in Dudley Square, Superintendent Tommy Chang expressed frustration with the delay in communication.

“In regards to the Mather, that is unacceptable,” he said. “When we get information, we absolutely need to communicate this to our parents in a much more expedited timeline.”

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Most of the district’s 125 schools have long used bottled water, after testing in the 1980s found worrisome lead levels. Last summer, the district spent about $300,000 retrofitting six schools with new water fountains as part of a pilot program to return to drinking city water.

Those fountains were not supposed to be put into use before they had passed lead tests, but the district recently revealed that some were mistakenly put into temporary use, potentially exposing children to tainted water.

Last week, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said two district employees were placed on administrative leave amid an investigation into the activation of those fountains before lead testing was complete.

The next day, 12 of Boston’s 13 city councilors issued a letter to Chang and School Committee chairman Michael D. O’Neill calling for an immediate moratorium on the drinking of tap water at city schools. The School Department balked at the suggestion and reiterated earlier statements that all fountains currently in use have recently passed tests.

But district officials pledged to listen to the council’s concerns and said that Chang invited councilors to meet with him May 18 to discuss the issue.

Speaking at Monday’s meeting on school water safety were John Sullivan (above left), chief engineer for the Boston Public Schools; Kim Rice, assistant superintendent of operations; and Dr. Sean Palfrey, a professor of pediatrics and public health.
Speaking at Monday’s meeting on school water safety were John Sullivan (above left), chief engineer for the Boston Public Schools; Kim Rice, assistant superintendent of operations; and Dr. Sean Palfrey, a professor of pediatrics and public health. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.