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Whitley school meets arsenic levels

When the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the allowable amount of arsenic in public water systems in January 2006, about 240 public water systems throughout Indiana suddenly had an arsenic problem.

The more stringent requirement, tightened to protect consumers from the potentially hazardous effects of long-term arsenic exposure, affected schools, municipalities, mobile home parks and businesses.

Northern Heights Elementary School in Whitley County was among the schools with excess arsenic levels.

Now, thanks to a filtration system, water tests show that the school is back in compliance, according to Anthony Zickgraf, director of business for Whitley County Consolidated Schools.

Two schools in the Prairie Heights Community School Corp. district continue to have borderline arsenic readings.

Paul Thomas, district superintendent, said engineering firms are preparing quotes and proposals for filtration systems that will remove arsenic from the water at Milford Elementary and Prairie Heights Middle schools.

Although water tests at the two schools have not shown arsenic levels that clearly violate EPA standards, Thomas said district officials want to take preventive measures because arsenic levels can fluctuate and future tests may not be in compliance.

Both Zickgraf and Thomas said no one has become ill from drinking the water.

“We really don’t feel at this point it’s endangering any child,” Thomas said.

About 13 of the state’s public water systems remain out of compliance with the arsenic levels, said Barry Sneed, public information officer for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

IDEM defines a public water system as one used for human consumption with at least 15 service connections or that regularly services an average of at least 25 people daily at least 60 days of the year.

Arsenic can enter water from either natural deposits or from industrial pollution. It has no smell or taste and, in large quantities, can cause stomach irritation, abnormal heart rhythms or nerve damage. In extreme cases, it can cause cancer.

As a precaution, officials opted to use bottled water at Northern Heights.

“We wanted our staff and students and parents to be comfortable so we chose to do that,” Zickgraf said.

Zickgraf said a state grant of $45,612 paid for the school’s filtration system.

The system’s installation was completed in November, ending the school’s need for bottled water.

Because tests showed the district had excess arsenic at one point, Zickgraf said IDEM will continue to require the district to test water quarterly for about two years. If those tests show allowable arsenic levels, the school can resume annual testing.

Thomas said officials at Prairie Heights have been told the district will likely qualify for a state grant to pay for its filtration system.