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KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Ramstein Intermediate School students were sent home Tuesday and dismissed for the school year two days early due to fears the school’s drinking water may be unsafe.

The water concerns started early Tuesday morning when German contractor Bilfinger-Berger, which is doing remodeling work at the school, notified school officials that water samples it had done tested positive for certain bacteria.

More than 750 students in grades 3, 4 and 5 were dismissed at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

In an e-mail sent out to parents prior to the students’ dismissal, principal Stanley Caldwell said traces of E. coli and Legionella bacteria had been found in the school’s water supply.

But Air Force officials maintain that the water at the school and across the base is safe to drink, and that their own tests show no contamination.

The Air Force has since said that no E. coli bacteria were found in the water test results given to the school. Just to be certain, Air Force bioenvironmental engineers collected their own water samples from four different locations within the school Tuesday. The 24-hour tests came back negative, said Lt. Col. Vira Em, the bioenvironmental engineering flight commander at Ramstein.

Em did confirm that lab results from the German contractor were positive for Legionella bacteria. But that doesn’t mean the drinking water is unsafe, he said.

There are no plans to resume school, which was to end Thursday, school officials said, despite strong criticism from 86th Airlift Wing commander, Brig. Gen. Mark Dillon, that ending the school year early was “a premature and an incorrect decision.”

“If an error was made, it was made based on the safety of the students,” Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe spokeswoman Margret Menzies said Wednesday.

Bioenvironmental engineers test the base’s drinking water supply weekly for total chloroform, pH and chlorine. Samples at Ramstein Intermediate School have routinely come back clean for at least the last three years, Em said. Neither the Air Force nor the Environmental Protection Agency requires drinking water to be monitored for Legionella bacteria, Em said.

The health risk from Legionella bacteria comes from inhalation and not ingestion, Em said.

Legionnaires’ disease — a type of pneumonia — is contracted by breathing in mist or vapor contaminated with the Legionella bacteria, which thrives in warm water. One example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, might be from breathing in the steam from a whirlpool spa that has not been properly cleaned and disinfected.

In his e-mail to Ramstein personnel Tuesday night, Dillon said surveys by the 86th Medical Group’s Public Health Flight for disease trends show no reported spikes in cases of local water-borne illnesses.

Menzies said most report cards were finished in time Tuesday to go home with students. Any remaining report cards and certificates will be available for pick up at the school on Monday, she said. Teachers are finishing out the school year, she said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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