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High Lead Levels Continue To Be Found in Schools

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Dangerous levels of lead continue to surface in school buildings across the country despite more than a decade of efforts to rid schools of the toxic substance.

Just in the past month:

  • A North Carolina girl made national headlines when her science project turned up high levels of lead in a school water spigot.
  • A local television station showed that District of Columbia schools had neglected to shut off lead-contaminated water fountains.
  • A New York State teachers' union reported that fewer than half of its members work in districts where there is testing for lead-based-paint contamination.

Part of the reason the problem persists is that the federal government does not require--nor provide funds for--schools to perform routine lead tests.

Even in districts that follow the lead-testing guidelines of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only random tests are conducted on a small percentage of school drinking fountains and water taps. (See box, this page.)

Exposure to lead is a particular threat to younger children, who are more likely to put paint chips in their mouths or to come into contact with lead dust on floors. Young children are also at greater risk from the effects of lead because their internal organs are still developing.

While lead ingestion in very large amounts can be fatal, even the relatively small amounts of the metallic element that children can take into their systems from environmental exposure can damage the liver and kidneys and affect mental development.

When schools find lead in drinking water, the source rarely is immediately evident.

Although a 1989 recall of certain models of water fountains known to contain lead has eliminated much of the problem of lead in school water, some fountains with lead parts remain in schools.

In addition to water fountains, lead solder used to join pipes can, over time, contaminate the water flowing through the pipes. And some pipes themselves, even those made of brass, also contain lead.

Tracking the Source

In some districts, however, the problem begins before the water even gets to the school building.

In one extreme case, the Boston schools found that the water coming into the schools from the city contained more lead than federal guidelines allow. The city's schools have turned almost exclusively to bottled water, used in all but two of the district's 117 schools.

The bottled water is costing the district as much as $200,000 a year, four times the cost of using city water, according to Robert Roy, the director of facilities for the Boston schools.

Filtering the city water would cost less than using the bottled water. But under current city policy, Mr. Roy said, the schools would be considered suppliers if they filtered the water, and thus would be required to run prohibitively expensive tests on the water.

The Burlington, Conn., district has been contending with the high cost of bottled water since a high level of lead was detected at a fountain in an elementary school there.

"With primary school children it can be very expensive because this becomes a novelty,'' said Rita Constantino, the director of business and facilities management for Regional School District #10.

Ms. Constantino said the affected elementary school has gone through a lot of paper-cone cups and water because the students think that the cups are fun and that the water is colder and tastes better than fountain water. The district is now paying between $400 and $500 for water and cups to replace the drinking fountain.

The Asbestos Experience

Although contamination of water has garnered most of the attention since lead was first identified as a health problem for schools, some observers are now more concerned about other sources of lead.

For some, the removal of lead-based paint is now a bigger issue.

"There's a misconception that when we took lead out of new paint, we'd solved the problem,'' said Anne Guthrie of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, a nonprofit Washington-based group. Ms. Guthrie said that many schools still have lead-based paint on the walls.

School personnel are especially concerned that there are no clear guidelines for paint removal, said Darryl Alexander of the American Federation of Teachers.

When schools do construction projects or remove old paint, Ms. Alexander said, sometimes there are inadequate steps taken to protect teachers and students from the lead dust generated by the work.

But the dilemma is not so clear-cut for school officials trying to balance safety with financial necessity--especially in light of the frustrations they experienced in years of asbestos removal.

"People have a bad taste from their experience with asbestos,'' Ms. Alexander said. Districts "are afraid to take on issues that they don't have resources for,'' she said.

Laurie Westley, the chief legislative counsel for the National School Boards Association, concurred.

"Districts are gun-shy, ... having lived through the asbestos problem,'' she said.

After districts undertook the expense and disruption of removing potentially carcinogenic asbestos fibers from their schools, some later learned that containing the material on-site would have presented less of a risk to students and teachers. Many experts, moreover, say the threat posed by asbestos in schools was vastly overstated to begin with. (See Education Week, Oct. 13, 1993.)

New Guidelines Planned

While there is a broad consensus on the health dangers of lead, Ms. Westley said that without good data on the risks associated with abatement, districts are often at a loss about how to proceed.

The E.P.A. is developing guidelines for risk assessment and abatement of lead paint, said Doreen Cantor, a director in the E.P.A.'s office of pollution, prevention, and toxics. The standards would require that when schools conduct abatement, they must use contractors trained by an accredited program. The E.P.A. plans to release the guidelines in August for comment.

In addition, Congress could address the issue next year.

Although Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., reportedly had been negotiating on a piece of school-environment legislation, they have been unable to come up with a compromise. Some lobbyists said, however, that a bill concerning lead-based paint in schools and day-care centers may be introduced during the next Congressional session.

Without federal funding, however, some observers said it is unlikely that states and districts will be required to do any lead testing.

"If there's a requirement for school testing, and there's no funding, it's not going to work,'' said Jeff Cohen, a special assistant in the E.P.A.'s office of drinking water.

Monitoring Lead In School Water

The E.P.A. recommends that:

  • Water used for drinking or cooking be tested in every school, every year;
  • If testing shows that water contains lead levels above 20 parts per billion, the water source be shut off and the source of the lead be identified and remedied; and
  • Schools "flush'' water systems by running each tap or fountain for a few minutes in the morning or after weekends and vacations to rid the pipes of stagnant water that has had more time to absorb the lead.

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