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Wellington parents concerned after copper levels in school's drinking water exceed EPA standards

Several locations and fixtures in Wellington Middle-High School exceed EPA level for copper in drinking water
Wellington parents concerned after copper levels exceed EPA standards in schools
Posted at 10:41 PM, Jan 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-10 00:41:19-05

WELLINGTON, Colo. — On Dec. 20, Wellington-Middle High School sent a notification to parents, which said in a chemistry class, it was discovered by students that water from two fountains showed copper levels that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) standards for copper in drinking water.

Poudre School District worked with the Larimer County of Health and Environment to test the school's water. The original notice from late December also said the school would be taking the following steps:

  • Signage posted on all water fountains and restrooms informing people that they should NOT drink the water.
  • Asking students and staff to fill their water bottles before coming to school, if possible. 
  • Making bottled water available to students, staff, and visitors.
  • School meal menus were modified so that options on a day that week were made without using water from the school. 

On Jan. 3, parents received another email from Wellington Middle-High School, which stated, "Following a jointly developed testing plan, Town of Wellington staff sampled the distribution line that supplies water to WMHS and had samples tested by Weld County Department of Health and Environment and Colorado Analytical. Neither found elevated levels of copper, meaning the town’s water is not the cause."

However, the notification continued to say that Poudre School District "collected water samples on December 22 from multiple locations and fixtures around the school, including the kitchen, a locker room, the health office, and hydration stations used to fill water bottles."

Those samples confirmed the levels in several of the fixtures and hydration stations or water bottle-filling stations "exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) action level for copper in drinking water (1.3 parts per million)."

Those with the school said the majority of locations tested "came back below the EPA action level."

The general contractor that built the campus "believes the issue could be tied to the building's water softener equipment." The school district turned the softener off, according to its statement, and continued to take similar steps as outlined in the first notification:

  • Keep all hydration stations/drinking fountains and sinks closed for drinking at this time. Signage will remain posted and be added as necessary, reminding people not to drink water from those sources.
  • Investigate whether to install filters on hydration stations/drinking fountains, and kitchen sinks.
  • Provide bottled water at the front office until further notice.
  • Continue adjusting school meal menus to exclude items that require water for preparation until kitchen filters are installed. 

In that correspondence, Principal Kelby Benedict included that "copper is an essential mineral for the body, and copper toxicity is rare, according to Larimer County Department of Health and Environment Medical Officer Dr. Paul Mayer. Eating, drinking, or breathing high levels of copper over time could potentially cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as stomachache, nausea, and diarrhea, along with headache, dizziness, and fatigue. Negative health effects related to potential exposure to high levels of copper can be diagnosed and treated by a healthcare provider."

However, some parents are concerned about the exposure to copper their children experienced.

“It just kind of felt like they were pushing it under the rug, making it less of an issue than it truly is and should be," said one mother of a seventh grader at Wellington Middle-High School, who wanted to remain anonymous. “For my kid, personally, she was having migraines since about a month into school. She started getting real lethargic, low energy, very pale, just wanted to sleep all the time. And she had mentioned a few times that the water tasted weird, and I just told her not to drink it. Take water from home because we have filtered water, but she obviously didn't listen.”

A picture of a drinking fountain from inside WMHS
A picture parents claim was taken inside of Wellington Middle-High School by one of their students of a water fountain.

The mother shared with Denver7 the above photograph, which she said was taken by a student at Wellington Middle-High School, who wanted to remain anonymous as well.

“Once we were informed that this was an issue by one of the parents of the students who was in the chemistry class, we started asking around to all of our friends, and we were able to get a picture of a water fountain. It's a stainless steel water fountain that has green patina-like watermark on it from the fountain to the drain," the mother said. “You can't get copper patina stainless steel without a high level of level of copper in the water.”

Another anonymous mother provided the medical records of her son, showing a high copper level in his system. Her son is in sixth grade at Wellington Middle-High School.

“It's important that they are held accountable for the issues, whether it's the school district that was at fault, or the construction company, since it is a new build," said the first anonymous mother. “Depending on how long you've been exposed to copper poisoning, it can take a little while to get out of your system. But generally speaking, it's anywhere from like 24 to 72 hours. For the parents that may have had children that were experiencing symptoms that did not get them tested specifically for copper poisoning, it's a little too late now, because it probably isn't going to show up.”

On Jan. 4, Rice Elementary School notified parents it also found an elevated level of copper in water in only one location tested at that school.

On Jan. 9, another email from Wellington Middle-High School was sent to parents, which included frequently asked questions pertaining to copper. Some of them are included below:

  • What is considered an elevated level of copper?  

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “action level” for copper concentration in drinking water is 1.3 parts per million (ppm), meaning they must take mitigation actions if a water provider finds copper levels of 1.3 ppm or higher in more than 10% of customer taps sampled. 

  • What copper levels were found at WMHS?  

PSD took water samples from three bottle filling stations at WMHS on Dec. 20 and conducted additional testing on 47 bottle filling stations, taps, and sinks in WMHS on Dec. 22. Test results showed copper concentration results ranging from 0.1225 ppm to 5.29 ppm. Thirty-five of the 47 locations tested on Dec. 22 showed copper concentrations below the EPA action level of 1.3 ppm. 

  • What testing will be done in PSD schools going forward? 

In accordance with Colorado House Bill 22-1358, testing of water in PSD elementary schools will start this month. These tests will look for both copper and lead levels. PSD will also test secondary schools. 

  • Colorado Analytical Laboratory test results show that some samples taken by Poudre School District at Wellington Middle-High School are above the EPA action level. Should I be concerned for my child’s health?  

According to the county and state health departments, healthy children without a genetic disorder of copper metabolism or a diet unusually high in copper and weighing around 100 pounds would have to drink 0.63 L of water per day for five days per week for four months straight at the maximum level found in one of the drinking fountains at WMHS of 5.29 ppm to reach the lowest observed adverse effect level, when minor reversible symptoms like stomachache could occur.  

Some people who drink water containing copper in excess of the action level over many years could suffer liver or kidney damage. For symptoms associated with severe toxicity such as liver or kidney damage, a 100-pound healthy person without a genetic disorder of copper metabolism or a diet unusually high in copper would need to drink roughly 9.0 L of water per day for five days per week for four months straight at the maximum level found in one of the drinking fountains at WMHS of 5.29 ppm to reach the lowest observed adverse effect level. 

The Town of Wellington has posted two updates regarding the elevated copper levels found in the schools. Read the most recent update by clicking here.