AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Over the next few weeks, more than 250 Chicago public schools will be tested for lead in drinking fountains and cooking facilities. Chicago school and health officials insist there's no need for alarm. They say the water is safe and the steps are being taken out of an abundance of caution.
But a pilot test revealed elevated lead levels at an elementary school. And parents want answers. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: The gymnasium at Tanner Elementary School in Chicago's South Side filled up quickly with parents, children and neighborhood residents. They came to get details and ask questions about the school district's pilot test, which revealed that Tanner was the only school out of 32 tested that showed elevated lead levels in its water fountains.
Tanner's principal, Nicole White, microphone in hand, addressed the crowd.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NICOLE WHITE: You know you have advocates here at Tanner. You know we're not going to let anything happen to our babies. Let's do this the right way.
CORLEY: Officials say most of the water outlets in Tanner showed little trace of lead, with test results well below the federal government standard of 15 parts per billion. However, high levels of lead were found at three of the school's water fountains, with levels ranging from 47 to 114 parts per billion.
That alarmed Victoria Mosby (ph). Tanner has about 370 students. And she has children in first, fourth and sixth grade.
VICTORIA MOSBY: How long have our kids been exposed to this situation? The three water fountains that they took is off the floor that my sixth grader is on. So there's no telling how long my son has been drinking this polluted water. And I have a problem with that.
CORLEY: School officials say the school's water fountains were shut down immediately and bottled water made available. Forrest Claypool, the school district CEO, told reporters earlier that the pilot testing would be expanded to include 250 schools by the end of the school year, with the rest to come later.
FORREST CLAYPOOL: And we will be testing every faucet and water fountain that a student or staff member could be using for drinking water or consuming food in preparation with that water.
CORLEY: Chicago's water department, like many others throughout the country, flushes a chemical called orthophosphate in the system. It adheres to pipes and prevents lead from leaching into the water. Chicago water commissioner Barrett Murphy says that works best if water runs through the pipes often.
BARRETT MURPHY: So one of the concerns, and why we're doing a diagnostic study at Tanner, is - we believe these are isolated to drinking fountains that were not in high use because other places that had high use did not have any detectable levels of lead.
CORLEY: That may be so, says Diana Greenhill (ph), who has a daughter in fourth grade at Tanner. But she's worried about any exposure to lead and how it may affect children at the school.
DIANA GREENHILL: Is it making them agitated because it messes with the neurological system? Does it promote anger? What is going on with the children?
CORLEY: Parent Sashanda Alexander (ph) is angry.
SASHANDA ALEXANDER: My oldest daughter graduated from here a year ago. And she ended up with lead. But when they tested my building, my building came up negative on the lead. So now that - I know that she got it from here.
CORLEY: And other parents worry if Tanner's water problems could be as dire as the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Chicago's health commissioner, Julie Morita, says lead-based paint - not water - is to blame for most instances of lead poisoning among children.
JULIE MORITA: So we are not Flint, Mich.
CORLEY: She answers - no evidence connecting elevated lead levels in Chicago to the city's water, which is drawn from Lake Michigan.
MORITA: I don't feel like we need to have water bottles and water coolers shipped to every Chicago public school. But I think it's reasonable to test and to reassure people that our water is safe.
CORLEY: The expanded test for lead at all of the city schools will bring either a new level of confidence or more concern. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.