Tisbury water might have high lead

School samples taken close to water main exceed toxic waste threshold.

The wrap up portion of excavation on Vineyard Montessori School property along Tashmoo Avenue on June 8 that saw a water sample taken. A lab later found waterborne lead at 18,250 ppb and copper at 40,900 ppb. — Rich Saltzberg

Updated 7/18

A sample taken from a water line connecting the Vineyard Montessori School to a Tisbury water main has tested high for lead and copper. Test results show a lead concentration more than 1,200 times the EPA action level for lead in water and over three times the EPA threshold for toxic waste. 

The sampling was done June 8 from a point in a distribution pipe close to a town water main. The work was commissioned by the school under the oversight of the Tisbury Water Department after actionable lead levels were discovered in Montessori School drinking water. Since lead was first detected, the school has replaced all its fixtures and installed filters but that didn’t solve the problem, according to Debbie Jernigan, head of the school.

In order to eliminate the possibility that lead contaminated water was entering the school’s plumbing from the town system, Jernigan said she organized an excavation, a pipe cut, and a sampling. The analysis of water samples taken on June 8 was done by Alpha Analytical of Westborough. That lab’s analysis, based on a report obtained by The Times, showed a lead concentration of 18.25 mg/l which translates into 18,250 ppb (parts per billion). By comparison, the highest lead in water level detected in Flint, Michigan, as part of research and analysis by a team from Virginia Tech was 13,000 ppb. As the Washington Post reported, the leader of that team was flabbergasted at such a high concentration. 

On July 1, a lab director reached out to Jernigan in part to underscore how elevated the metals concentrations were.

“[B]ut also wanted to email you because of the high concentrations of lead and copper in the Water Main sample and not sure if you were expecting levels that high,” the director wrote.

The copper concentration from the water sampling was 40,900 ppb, about 40 times the EPA action level for copper. 

The human body uses copper. However, too much of it can be harmful. 

“Consuming high levels of copper may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. Some infants and children, people with liver disease, and people with Wilson’s disease have trouble eliminating copper from their bodies and are more likely to experience negative health effects, such as kidney and liver damage,” a web page of the Massachusetts Bureau of Environmental Health states. 

Per their websites, the EPA and the Centers for Disease control both say there is no known safe limit for lead. 

“Ingesting even small amounts of lead can lead to permanent adverse health effects, including cardiovascular impacts, worsened kidney function, and reproductive issues,” a webpage of Harvard University’s Environmental and Energy Law program states. 

Lead is known to be particularly harmful to children. Some of the effects lead has on children, per a CDC webpage, are: 


  • Damage to the brain and nervous system
  • Slowed growth and development
  • Learning and behavior problems
  • Hearing and speech problems


Jernigan described the analysis results as “alarming” and said she’d be pleased to learn a lab error or contamination skewed the results. “My hope is that it’s wrong,” she said.

Reached Wednesday evening Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande said he was unaware of the high test results. “That information has not been shared with my office and the select board,” Grande said. Grande said specifically he has not heard anything from the water commissioners.

”I’m sure they will report to us when they have something definitive to say,” he said. Nonetheless, Grande said he planned to look into the matter.

Tisbury water commission chair David Schwab couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday, nor could commissioners Roland Miller and Elmer Silva.  A voice message left with Tisbury’s water department on Friday wasn’t immediately returned. 

Tisbury Health Agent Maura Valley said Thursday she’s been in contact with Jernigan. Valley said a retest is in the works and a joint meeting between the water department and the board of health is slated for July 26. 

Board of health member Michael Loberg said on Thursday the board is taking the matter “seriously” and wants to get answers.

Valley said the test results, as she understands them, raise a lot of unanswered questions such as why such lead concentrations aren’t close to being as high inside the school’s older building and at “non detect” levels in the school’s new building. 

Valley also said it’s her understanding Tisbury’s water department is conferring with the  Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). MassDEP spokesman 

Ed Coletta confirmed Friday that MassDEP was in communication with Tisbury’s water department.  

Since receiving the results from the June 8 sampling, which Jernigan said she emailed to town officials on July 5, she has not heard back from the town’s water department but has received a call from the health department. After a bit of friction between them at a water commission meeting in May, Jernigan and Tisbury Water Superintendent Chris Cassidy agreed to schedule the sampling excavation. Cassidy couldn’t be reached for comment over the course of several days. James Cleary, assistant water superintendent told The Times on Monday that the department was conferring with the board of health on the matter. Cleary declined to speak about the test results except to say he was not on site when the sampling was done. He said he expected a clearer idea of what’s next at the July 26 joint meeting.

After a problem allegedly occurred with an earlier sample taken from a tap inside the school, a sample allegedly managed by the town, Jernigan said she sent off a new sample which was taken from a sink in the older of the school’s two buildings. That new interior sample, per a report obtained by The Times, showed 0.158 mg per liter or 158 ppb. That concentration, which Jernigan said was taken from a filtered tap, is over 10 times the EPA threshold for action. Jernigan dismissed a suggestion previously made by Cassidy that old lead solder in the school’s plumbing may account for the interior reading. Jernigan said a plumber hired by the school didn’t find the idea credible. 

The discovery of waterborne lead this winter caused the school to use only bottled water, a practice that remains in effect, according to Jackie Friedman, chair of the school’s board of trustees. Friedman said working with the town and its water department to arrive at a potable water solution is the school’s primary goal.

Updated to include information from Cleary.  –Ed.


  1. Just a comment on how whenever something happens in the town of Tisbury that could reflect poorly on those involved, Jay Grande has a tremendous ability to distance himself from any involvement. It’s quite a talent, really.

    • Don’t know where I heard it first but, boy does it come up often. “Success has a thousand fathers. Failure is an orphan.”

  2. Alarming! VMS hasn’t been using the tap water for months, so that’s good, but I’m curious how extensive the problem is. The Tisbury School found lead in one of their sinks according to a Feb 4 MVTimes article. I assume the water department or dept of health has done more sampling since then… any results to report, positive or negative?

  3. You would think that the town would test the town water supply for a number of things occasionally.
    But then again, nobody bothered to check for lead or asbestos at the tisbury school before having a vote on whether to build a new school.
    If it had been made public that the school was contaminated with those substances it might have made a difference to 11 or more people.

    But something is very unclear or seriously wrong here. If they were wondering if the contaminants were coming from the town water supply, they could have taken a sample from the fire hydrant that is about 150 ft from where they dug the hole and cut a pipe to get a sample. Or tested the tap water of the house next-door.
    But I guess there is always a harder and more expensive way to do things.
    What did they learn ?
    Have they tested the water from that hydrant ?
    Have they tested the water going into the system ?
    The article states “The copper concentration from the water sampling was 40,900 ppb, about 40 times the EPA action level for copper.” in the “water main” sample.
    Which water main is unclear. — the town water main that we all use, or the main line going into the school.
    Let me give the town a little advice, and suggest that you test the water coming out of the tap in the house next-door, and don’t bother digging up the lawn.

  4. I’m reminded that, living in Oak Bluffs, I once commented to the head of our water district that sometimes the smell of chlorine in the morning is so strong I don’t know whether to drink the water or jump in for a swim. That person rejoined that (a) the water in Oak Bluffs is the best he’s ever drunk; and (b) that there’s probably something wrong with my pipes…

  5. I happen to be the long time owner, since 1978, of the house next to the Montessori school, and where the fire hydrant is located. My own children lived here and I am now in my ninth decade.. Having drunk this contaminated water for decades, with seemingly no apparent ill effects, I am quite happy to involve myself in this potential lead issue, if it might help..
    My own four kids were born and raised in an asbestos filled home in the mid-west before its dangers were revealed, and one also filled with lead paint . They too are alive and well, in their 50’s and 60’s despite growing up in such a contaminated site. At this late point in life, I tend to think we make much ado about something without proof that we will actually be as damaged as experts tend to predict, thus unsettling parents of young children needlessly.
    For years, as a teacher, in a large Canadian city, my kindergarten children played with asbestos clay, which I created by daily mixing the flakes of asbestos with water….Just saying.

    • This is called “survivorship bias.” If you look at actual evidence, you will see that there are negative health effects associated with lead and asbestos. Just because you and your family survived, doesn’t mean everyone does.

      • Well I guess their is a bias for everything these days. Yes, seat belts are good and modern science and all the smart people figuring this stuff out makes our society a better and safer place to live. Even the biased people benefit.

    • “Mesothelioma can take between 20 and 60 years to develop after asbestos exposure. It is very rare to have a mesothelioma latency period of less than 15 years. The majority of adults with mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos in the workplace, and it took decades for their cancer to develop.” ~from asbestos.com

      • My Stepfather was 26 when he worked inside of ships peeling asbestos. He died at age 70 after two years with Mesothelioma. Jackie is correct on a few things but only a few things. Having said this, there are a few things clearly dangerous to health and a lot of other stuff that based upon science are not toxic.

    • Doreen–I know people who smoked all their lives, never got cancer and died in their 90’s.
      Does that mean smoking has no health problems ?
      I was in a car accident once, and walked away from it.
      Now I drive at 90 mph everywhere I go.
      And I encourage all my friends to drink heavily and drive, because I have known many people who have driven drunk and never killed anyone.

  6. Doreen – all good points. We grew up in a triple decker that had a coal bin and used to watch it loudly rumbling into our basement as it created a massive amount of call dust. My dad and I would play with mercury on the kitchen table. Fascinating stuff. He was a representative for Mosler Safe Co. and sold safes and needed to be able to open them when owners forgot their combination and so I learned how to crack safes at 8 years old. It sure is a different world now.

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