More than 30 Pa. schools detected toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in their drinking water that exceed EPA standard

For the first time, Pa. schools with on-site wells have been required to test drinking water for PFAS. Some rely on private wells because they are far away from public water.

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Water filter on the wall

A PFAS filter is installed at the cooler filling station inside Central Buck’s High School East’s athletic training room. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Chris Tomlinson said he and his wife were surprised and troubled to learn the drinking water at their daughter’s high school contained toxic PFAS chemicals.

In March, the Central Bucks School District emailed parents and staff at Central Bucks East High School to inform them the rural Doylestown school’s on-site well water was contaminated with the chemicals, and that they had a plan to remove them.

Tomlinson said the school’s response did not ease his concern for his daughter, who has regularly drunk from the water fountains for the past two years.

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“How long has this been going on? How many people have consumed the water?” he said.

Central Bucks is one of more than 30 Pennsylvania K-12 schools that have detected high levels of PFAS in their drinking water, according to recent test results analyzed by WHYY News.

Under new federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations, water providers, including schools that rely on private wells, must test and treat the class of chemicals to almost zero over the next five years.

The goal is to reduce serious health problems linked to the so-called “forever chemicals,” which can remain in the environment — and the human bloodstream — for years.

This year marks the first time Pennsylvania schools with on-site wells have been required to test their drinking water for PFAS to meet the state’s own regulations implemented last year.

Thirty-one schools, of the more than 150 that submitted water samples, reported levels above the new EPA standards, according to Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection data.

Seven of those schools reported levels above the state’s own restrictions, which allow for higher levels of the chemicals in drinking water.

The EPA’s new maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, are 4 parts per trillion for two types of PFAS — PFOA and PFOS. Last year, Pennsylvania implemented PFAS MCLs at 14 parts per trillion for PFOA and 18 parts per trillion for PFOS.

In the Philadelphia region, the highest levels of PFAS were reported at Kings Highway Elementary School in Coatesville and Central Bucks East High School in Doylestown, with levels at 22.6 and 23.25 parts per trillion, respectively, exceeding the state’s threshold. Officials representing both schools said they don’t know the sources of contamination.

A small percent of K-12 schools rely on on-site wells for their drinking water, because they’re located in rural areas, far from public water supplies. The Pennsylvania DEP requires these schools to hire certified operators to maintain the water systems, and test them for a number of contaminants such as lead.

However, January marked the first time schools were required to monitor for PFAS, and some officials say they weren’t sure what to expect.

“We weren’t necessarily sure where we were going to fall,” said Kevin Spencer, director of operations for the Central Bucks School District.

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The district sent a letter to parents and staff as soon as high levels of PFAS were detected at Central Bucks East High School. The letter stated there was “no immediate threat,” according to the DEP, but that the school would provide bottled water and install a filtration system “out of an abundance of caution.”

Water filter on the wall
A PFAS filter is installed at the cooler filling station inside Central Bucks High School East’s athletic training room. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Under-the-sink filtration systems were installed throughout the school within a week, reducing the chemicals to non-detectable levels, Spencer said. He said officials may decide to install a more costly building-wide filtration system at a later date after more testing.

Kevin Spencer posing for a photo
Kevin Spencer is the director of operations at the Central Bucks School District. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We want to get ahead of it,” Spencer said. “There will be a cost. At the end of these four quarters … if one of our averages is higher than those MCLs, we’re going to have to come up with a longer-term solution.”

Central Bucks parent Jeffrey Shuck said he appreciated the school’s transparency, and the speed at which officials installed filtration systems.

“It looks like they’re taking it seriously going forward, which is what makes me happy,” he said.

However, parent Chris Tomlinson said he believes the school downplayed the situation. He said though schools have followed DEP requirements, he’s appalled they only began monitoring for PFAS this year, considering the chemical’s vast reach.

“That is absolutely unacceptable. With the amount of money that is poured into the Central Bucks School District, water should be paramount — especially if you’re pulling it from a well,” Tomlinson said.

A filter on the sink in the school's kitchen
A PFAS filter on in the kitchen inside Central Bucks High School East. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Officials for the Central Bucks School District and the Coatesville Area School District said DEP told them they weren’t required to notify staff and students about PFAS contamination until all tests throughout the year are complete. Test results may also change due to factors such as rainfall — in fact, a second test at Kings Highway resulted in slightly reduced levels, though still above the new federal regulations.

However, officials at both school districts said they felt it was best to notify parents and staff immediately.

Kings Highway Elementary School is currently researching a variety of filtration systems, said Catherine Van Vooren, superintendent for the Coatesville Area School District. She said she expects one to be installed by the end of August.

However, because the DEP said there’s no immediate health risk, tap water was not shut off. Bottled water has always been available as an option at the school, Van Vooren said.

“It’s very important to us that our students and staff are drinking water that meets guidelines,” she said. “Science is always evolving, and we’re going to continue to do whatever we need to do to be in compliance with these changing guidelines.”

Van Vooren said though addressing PFAS is a significant undertaking, the district is prepared to take on the challenge.

“Anytime you have something that wasn’t budgeted, that’s always a concern for schools because you have specific monies that are budgeted in different departments,” she said.

“That said … we also have our reserve, because you just never know what’s going to happen. We’re going to need a whole school water filtration system, but it could also be something happens with a roof, or a natural disaster, or something of that sort. So, we are prepared to absorb this without it having a huge effect on our budgetary costs.”

There is no need to panic when water first tests positive for PFAS since the health effects associated with the chemicals appear to be chronic in nature, said Andy Yencha, a water resources educator at Penn State Extension at Penn State University. He said parents should ask the school what level of PFAS was detected in the water system.

“If the levels of PFAS in the school’s water exceed the EPA’s more stringent levels then I believe the best course of action is … the child, or anyone at the school, should avoid the drinking water … until the PFAS levels are reduced to below the federal MCLs.”

In a statement, the Pennsylvania Department of Education said it’s working closely with schools that have identified PFAS in their water systems, and is providing support. Schools may also seek funding from the Public School Environmental Repairs Program to address PFAS. The $75 million grant program helps to fund environmental remediation at schools.

“The Shapiro administration is committed to ensuring that all students can learn in a safe, secure environment free from hazards and environmental toxins,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

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