'Odd odor' prompts testing of school's water supply

ATWATER -- Ahh, that new water smell.

Students and teachers last week at Thomas Olaeta Elementary School in Atwater got a stinky surprise when they took a sip from the fountains or washed their hands in the sinks. The water didn't taste or smell quite right.

Extensive testing of the school's water came back on Monday, proving that it was devoid of harmful bacteria, solvents or toxins, said Principal Robert J. Ellis. The odd odor and flavor were simply caused by new pipes and sinks installed at the school.

So it was safe to drink. But it kind of tasted like paint, grimaced fourth-grader Abraham Tejada, 9.

A student complained to Ellis on Sept. 4 that the water she drank from the faucet "smelled funny." He filled a bottle of his own, took a whiff and agreed. "To me it smelled like ... new piping," Ellis said. "It was a solvent smell."

After checking the water in other classrooms and gathering similar opinions from staff, the school sent a sample of the water to be tested by a private firm in Modesto. The city of Atwater also took a sample for its own testing. It wanted to make sure city water wasn't causing the problem, said David Church, public works director.

Both tests came back negative for any harmful substances.

But the school didn't take any chances while awaiting the results. "We didn't even let them wash their hands in the water -- you never know," Ellis said.

The school turned off the water and brought some from outside the school for students to wash with. Children were also given antibacterial soap from the nurse. And each classroom was supplied with bottled water. "It didn't really change anything for the students," said teacher Dina Thompson, a resource specialist. "They weren't upset."

She said she was concerned at first, "but now I hear it's fine."

Parents were also alerted to the issue. The school sent home notes on Tuesday and Wednesday last week, assuring families that it was aware of the problem, finding the solution and having students drink alternative water in the meantime.

Although the water seems back to normal, the school will continue to have it tested each month for about the next four months to make sure it's safe, Ellis said.

Atwater does not have a history of water contamination scares, Church said. "Sometimes we get calls, concerns about color in the water -- but never any problems." This was an isolated incident caused by construction, he continued. "I'm sure they did the best they could, but there was some odor."

The school worked on projects this summer to modernize its cafeteria and other areas of the campus and remove asbestos. Ellis said asbestos had nothing to do with the water's condition last week.

Reporter Dhyana Levey can be reached at 209-385-2472 or">