The phrase “Don’t drink the water” is uttered often by travel agents, but that same warning was posted over sinks and drinking fountains Thursday at Wiley Elementary School in West Richland.
A spike in the fluoride level of water supplied to the school prompted district officials to shut down the water fountains.
The district is shipping in bottled water for drinking and food preparation for the rest of the school year. Water in the restrooms will be on for washing hands, but signs warn not to drink it.
“Fortunately, there’s only a few weeks left of school,” said Superintendent Rich Semler. “We feel like we have the problem contained for the short term.”
The district will buy 58 five-gallon bottles of water each week until the end of school on June 15.
Fluoride is a naturally occurring element often found in water. A level around 1 part per million in drinking water can reduce tooth decay, but excessively high levels can increase decay.
According to Dennis Wright, West Richland public works director, the acceptable limit of fluoride in drinking water, set by the Environmental Protection Agency, is 2 parts per million for children under 9 and four parts per million for adults.
The level in Wiley’s water was 1.9 Wednesday, up from 1.5 two weeks ago.
“If it would have gone from 1.5 to 1.6, we probably wouldn’t have done anything,” Semler said. “I’m not an alarmist, but when the safe level is two and it jumps to 1.9, we just can’t take the chance. We can’t afford to find out next week that it’s gone up to 2.2.”
Wright said one of the city’s seven wells, located on the west side of town, naturally produces water containing about 2.7 parts per million of fluoride.
That well is the city’s newest and is used the least.
“Now that the weather is hot, we’re putting more of that water in the system,” Wright said. “We don’t draw out of that well unless we need the water.”
Water from the new well is diluted with water from other wells to dilute the fluoride level.
But one of the six other wells is not in use while a sand screen is being installed, hampering the dilution process in the school area. Wright said that well should be back up in about a week.
The areas most affected are just north and west of the school, particularly the neighborhood bordering South Highland Boulevard. Wright estimated that would include 300 to 400 homes.
“We will notify those people, certainly, if we go over the two parts per million,” Wright said.
He said levels around the rest of the city vary from “almost nothing, to around 1 part per million.”
Semler said the school district will equip Wiley with a filtering system costing an estimated $50,000.
“We feel that’s a good investment that will last for a lot of years,” he said. “That will be done this summer.”
Laurie Ghigleri, the oral health program coordinator for the Benton-Franklin Health District, said the district feels the school doesn’t need to take extraordinary measures.
“The 1.9 is higher than the optimal level, but I have not seen any research that it is detrimental to anyone,” Ghigleri said. “If a child were drinking water with that amount of fluoridation from birth to adolescence, you may get a little staining of the teeth, but probably not. It’s certainly not a toxic level.”
Meanwhile, Kathi Christensen, principal at Wiley, said the switch to bottled water Thursday went off without a hitch.
“We told the kids they may want to bring bottles, and there are a bunch of little cups in each classroom,” she said. “It’s all going pretty well; I think the kids are having fun with it. It’s been a new experience for the kitchen folks, but it worked.”