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High lead levels found in the water at Azalea Elementary in St. Petersburg

Students and staff at Azalea Elementary in St. Petersburg are using bottled water after a routine test revealed high levels of lead in the water. [Pinellas County Schools]
Students and staff at Azalea Elementary in St. Petersburg are using bottled water after a routine test revealed high levels of lead in the water. [Pinellas County Schools]
Published Aug. 21, 2018
Updated Aug. 21, 2018

Pinellas County school officials have notified families at Azalea Elementary in St. Petersburg that lead levels in the water there are above the federal safety threshold, and they are using water bottles as a precaution.

District spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said in an email that the school's water supply recently was tested at the meter and found to be over the threshold for lead set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The water was retested Tuesday and results are expected later this week, she said.

Families were notified Monday and school officials are working with the city of St. Petersburg to resolve the issue. In the interim, Wolf said, students and staff will continue to use bottled water, and the school's tap water will not be used in food preparation.

Restrooms and handwashing stations could still be used, the district said.

John Palenchar, water resource director for the city, said the city is assisting with additional testing. He said the city and the district are sending their respective samples to different labs to make sure the readings are accurate.

The lead reading that sparked the concern was 45 parts per billion. The EPA's "action level" – meaning the point at which the public must be notified and steps taken to address the high concentration – is 15 parts per billion.

Shelley Perez, the mother of an Azalea Elementary first grader, said she first found out about the high lead levels when she heard a voicemail from the school. Immediately, she called the school but was upset, she said, that the person who answered could not tell her how high the levels were.

She said she took her son to a pediatrician on Tuesday to get his blood tested. If the results come back positive for lead, she said she will request a change of school for her son.

"I'm disappointed in how they are handling this," she said.

The district says it voluntarily began its water testing program in 2016. All Pinellas schools and school facilities are tested once a year, and any sites that approach the EPA's "action level" are tested four times a year.

"Azalea's water supply is routinely tested and every previous test was within safe limits," said Wolf, the spokeswoman.

In addition to using bottled water instead of tap water, the district typically takes other steps when lead levels exceed EPA recommendations. Those can include installing water filters, flushing pipes, replacing or coating pipes and other fixtures, and continued testing.

The district says it immediately notifies families and staff when lead content in the water goes above the federal action level.

The Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this month that in neighboring Hillsborough County, months passed before the school district notified families of high lead readings at many campuses.

More information on the Pinellas school district's water quality testing is available at pcsb.org/water.

Staff writers Caitlin Johnston and Jimena Tavel contributed to this report.