Schools drag feet on lead warnings

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Three Ohio school districts say they're addressing possible problems with their drinking water, at least six months after tests revealed potentially unsafe levels of lead.

School officials are supposed to alert staff members, students and parents within 60 days of detecting lead levels that exceed the federal safety threshold, but that didn't happen in these instances.

Two of the districts Tecumseh in Clark County and East Clinton in Clinton County say internal communication lapses prevented key administrators from learning the results of tests conducted last summer.

Usually, schools that report unsafe lead levels can count on the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to serve as a backstop. Agency officials routinely notify top administrators in such districts and then follow up to make sure their schools have alerted parents and acted to correct the problems.

"I share your concerns that we did not, in these two instances, ensure the schools did the appropriate public education and notification," said Michael Baker, chief of the Ohio EPA's Division of Drinking and Ground Waters.

The agency, however, isn't prepared to take the fall for the districts. "They are responsible for collecting the samples, having them analyzed and reporting the data to us," said Linda Oros, a spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA. "Clearly, someone associated with the school districts knew they had exceeded the action level."

In the third district, North Central in Wayne County, a top official acknowledges dropping the ball. Andy Froelich, principal at Burbank Elementary School, north of Wooster, said he didn't fully understand his legal obligation to notify the public.

"I wasn't, I guess, overly concerned about it," he said, referring to the unsafe lead level detected in school water in September. "I wouldn't look at it as an immediate life-and-death situation."

Districts that handle their own water treatment are required to test the water regularly and send results to the Ohio EPA. The frequency depends on a district's track record. Districts served by public water utilities, such as Columbus, are exempt because public utilities do the testing.

Tests conducted in June showed that Tecumseh Middle School in New Carlisle, about 60 miles west of Columbus, had a lead level of almost 22 parts per billion. The safety threshold, or "action level," for schools is 15 parts per billion. In July, water at East Clinton High School in Lees Creek, 60 miles southwest of Columbus, had a lead level of 25 parts per billion.

Follow-up testing in October indicated that the concentration at the high school had returned to a safe level, said Gary West, superintendent of East Clinton schools. However, he said, that same round of testing turned up an unsafe amount of lead in the water at the adjacent East Clinton Middle School.

The lead concentration at North Central's Burbank Elementary was 22 parts per billion. Lead in water usually can be traced to lead pipes, lead solder used to connect pipes or brass fixtures that contain small amounts of lead, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It's a "significant health concern, particularly for children ... whose bodies tend to absorb more lead than the average adult," the agency says.

"Exposure to even low levels of lead can cause low IQ, hearing impairment, reduced attention span and poor classroom performance."

Despite the potential health threat, none of the three school districts did anything about its test results until WBNS-TV (Channel 10) found the lead-concentration figures on an Ohio EPA database obtained through a public-records request.

All three districts now have sent the required warnings to staff members, students and parents.