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G.A.O. Charges Schools Fail To Protect Children From Lead

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WASHINGTON--Few states or school districts routinely inspect schools and child-care facilities for the presence of hazards from lead, a General Accounting Office report concludes.

The G.A.O. reviewed federal, state, and local efforts to eradicate lead in the drinking water, paint, and soil of schools and day-care centers.

It found that none of the 16 states surveyed regularly inspect all child-care facilities for lead. Nine states inspect facilities under certain circumstances. Eight of those states sometimes test the water, and one inspects some centers for lead in soil.

Of the 57 school districts surveyed, 50 test the water at some schools at least once, but only nine test the paint, and three the soil. None of the 10 states in which the 57 districts are located have any requirement or inspection program to insure that schools are free of lead hazards, the report says.

At a hearing held by the House health and environment subcommittee, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., the panel's chairman, berated educators for their lack of initiative on investigating and correcting lead exposure in schools.

"Despite the magnitude of the health impacts, schools and day-care centers have largely ignored the hazard'' of lead, he said.

Mr. Waxman specifically reprimanded Amy Linden, the chief of the division of school facilities for New York City, for what he called her "appalling lack of concern'' about the existence of lead hazards in the city's schools. One in six classrooms in the city may pose a danger of lead poisoning, according to an unpublished report by a city task force.

Ms. Linden, however, defended the city's commitment to combatting the lead problem.

"Our buildings are like abandoned children,'' she told the panel. "We must deal with that neglect.''

In the Dark About Lead

But districts and child-care centers are often operating in the dark when it comes to lead, according to the G.A.O. report. Neither the federal agencies nor the 16 state education agencies contacted for the survey had compiled information on the results of lead-inspection and -removal efforts, the report says.

As a result, Mr. Waxman said, "we do not know the true dimensions of the threat'' in schools.

The Environmental Protection Agency considers lead poisoning to be the most serious environmental hazard facing children today.

Toxic levels of lead are dangerous to the developing brain and nervous system of young children. Lead poisoning has been shown to cause brain damage, induce hyperactivity, and retard young children's intellectual development. Paint, soil, and drinking water are the most common sources of harmful lead exposure.

Educators assured the subcommittee members that they recognize the potential hazards, but said that a lack of resources often stymies lead-testing and -abatement efforts. They pressed the legislators for federal dollars to help offset the costs involved.

The National School Boards Association recommended in written testimony that state agencies perform all the lead abatement work in schools.

"School personnel should not become engineers, environmental scientists, and risk managers,'' the statement said.

Mr. Waxman is expected to introduce comprehensive school-health legislation this year that will address the environmental hazards of lead, radon, and air pollutants in schools.

"This report is a wake-up call to Congress,'' Mr. Waxman said. "We urgently need legislation to address the problem.''

A free copy of the report, "Lead Hazards in Child-Care Facilities and Schools,'' as well as testimony from the hearing, is available by calling (202) 512-6000; additional reports cost $2 each.

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