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Elevated copper level found in water at Moorhead school after kids had flu-like symptoms

An epoxy terrazzo emblem sits inside the bus entrance Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, at Horizon Middle School, Moorhead. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

MOORHEAD – Testing shows the drinking water for the Horizon West Middle School campus has slightly elevated levels of copper, a Moorhead School District official said Thursday, Nov. 30.

The testing came after students complained of flu-like symptoms Tuesday morning, along with reports of discolored water, Acting Superintendent Brandon Lunak said.

Lunak said signs were placed on water fountains telling people not to drink from them, and bottled water was available for students and staff.

Water samples were taken. However, because of a problem at the nearest Minnesota laboratory, water samples had to be taken again Wednesday, Lunak said.

The school’s water was to be tested again Thursday and Friday, while flushing of the water system would continue, district spokeswoman Pam Gibb said. “Hopefully, when we get the final test results … we’ll be back to normal, with any luck,” she said.

Lunak said it is possible some contamination could have gotten into water lines during construction of Horizon West, a building for fifth- and sixth-graders, on the Horizon Middle School campus, but that is not yet known. No water problems were reported in the Horizon East seventh- and eighth-grade building.

The district sent out an automated call Tuesday to families of Horizon West students, warning them of the issue, Lunak said.

In an email, Gibb said that in addition to drinking fountains being flushed, accommodations were made to prepare food in the Horizon East kitchen as needed.

While some copper is needed in a person’s diet, ingesting too much copper can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and nausea. It also has been associated with liver damage and kidney disease, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

In January, one drinking fountain on the Horizon Middle School East Campus was found to have elevated copper levels, which made at least six or seven students ill.

The contamination was attributed to the fountain not being used during winter break and its location next to Horizon West, which was still under construction. Although isolated to the single drinking fountain, the water systems were flushed schoolwide and bottled water was provided as a precaution.

The Department of Health said copper works its way into water by dissolving from copper pipes used in plumbing. The longer water stays idle in the pipes, the more copper it is likely to absorb.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including K-12 education, Fargo city government, criminal justice, and military affairs. He is currently one of The Forum's business reporters.

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