Portland Announces Dozens of Schools Have Elevated Lead Levels

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

Portland, Oregon, a bastion of eco-consciousness and all things organic, has discovered that two schools in the city which were tested in March showed toxin levels in water greater than federal regulations allow.

Now Portland has joined cities like Flint, Michigan, Newark, New Jersey, Boston, Massachusetts, Detroit, Michigan and many others that have found their children have been drinking water with dangerous levels of lead at their schools.

Hannah Rappleye and Tracy Connor, writing for NBC News, report that school officials were busy dealing with parents and the delay in making the results public when new information unveiled a much more widespread problem. High lead levels had been found in 47 buildings that were tested from 2010 and 2012.

"I feel betrayed," said Julie Frank, who was scrambling to get her 8-year-old son Joey a blood test on Wednesday after learning elevated levels were found in his school, Reike Elementary, as far back as 2001.

She said she was concerned that her son had been the victim of slow poisoning over the past three years, a fact which also makes her doubtful that Portland Public Schools can fix the problem.

Bottled water is now being delivered to Portland Public School's 49,000 students until all 78 schools in the district can be tested over the summer. An outside investigator is being hired to find what went wrong with the previous testing results and the school officials' response.

"What was done when? Were the repairs made immediately? Did it take care of the problem? Or did the problem not get addressed?" Portland Public Schools spokeswoman Christine Miles asked.

In individual homes, the Environmental Protection Agency says families should make changes if the lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion. In a school, the levels should not exceed 20 parts per billion. However, the federal government does not require that schools test for lead, so several big cities have a continuing, extensive water-testing schedule.

Lead is a remarkably toxic metal that can result in developmental and dangerous health problems. Scientists have said there is no safe level of ingested lead.

Families met with Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith last week at Creston School, since the response to the lead issue was worst at this school. Smith said she had a three-fold plan to counteract the water fiasco.

Smith wants to see a community task force take over the water problem and the hiring of two teams of investigators from outside the district. One team would be handling recent lead issues, and one would be dealing with longer-term lead level problems, reports Rob Manning for Oregon Public Radio.

School Board member Steve Buel was quick to object to the superintendent's assumption that she would be the supervisor of the probes. Later, Smith agreed that the school board should head up the investigation.

Parents and Gwen Sullivan, president of the Portland teachers union, were angry that they had been left out of the loop concerning levels of lead in schools' drinking water and had been unaware of the problem for so many years.

Smith, who has been superintendent since 2007, promised that a web page with information about mitigation efforts as they occur at individual schools would be created.

The Willamette Week's Rachel Monahan notes that on the evening of Friday, May 27, four hours after the district received the results of the tests, the district shut off drinking water at all PPS schools and began providing bottled water.

On that same Friday, Smith admitted that she had failed to report the information about the lead levels for almost two months.

In April, Gov. Kate Brown began a review across the state to discover what tools schools and districts have for testing water. She also had the Oregon Health Authority, the organization that carries out Environmental Protection Agency water ordinances at the state level, and the Oregon Department of Education to make recommendations for a solution to the predicament, says Gillian Flaccus for the Associated Press.

James Montgomery, an associate professor of environmental studies at DePaul University and an expert on lead in the environment, says this is not the end of the lead in public school water dilemma. Americans will be hearing more about this subject in the coming months, in his opinion.

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