Lead water

A child holds a cup of clean spring water Nov. 8 at Paradise Elementary School.

THE ISSUE

The Ephrata Area School District’s Akron Elementary School is among 10 mostly aging schools in four Lancaster County districts that were found in voluntary testing in 2016 and 2017 “to have elevated lead levels in water fountains, classroom sinks and a kitchen,” an investigation by Ad Crable, published in Sunday LNP, found. “And, as in the Akron case, two of the other three districts that found lead contamination — School District of Lancaster and Solanco — did not directly notify parents of the potential danger. But officials in all three districts maintain they took ample steps to notify the public.”

We understand the anger of Lisa Getz Bender and Brian Bender.

As Crable reported, the Benders learned recently that their daughter had spent a year in a kindergarten classroom at Akron Elementary School where lead-contaminated water had been found, and they weren’t informed of the contamination by Ephrata Area School District officials.

We would have been angry, too.

As Lisa Getz Bender said: “Even if it had been a minute level of lead, it can be detrimental to children. We should have at least been informed.”

She is right on both counts.

As the American Academy of Pediatrics notes, “There is no safe level of lead exposure in children, with lasting decreases in cognition documented in children with blood levels as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood.”

Lead in a child’s system can cause serious cognitive, learning and behavioral issues that last a lifetime. These can include attention issues, drops in IQ, hyperactivity and aggression. Physical effects such as slowed growth, anemia and impaired hearing also can result from lead poisoning.

Lead exposure can be treated, but damage done by lead poisoning is irreversible. This is why knowledge of exposure is so essential.

Voluntary testing

So, first things first.

We commend the officials at Ephrata Area, Lancaster, Solanco, Warwick, Lampeter-Strasburg and Penn Manor school districts who chose to do voluntary lead testing in 2016 and 2017.

They were spurred by the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where thousands of children were exposed to lead in drinking water.

Districts such as Donegal that also did voluntary testing in the past are to be commended, too.

Unbelievably — given that Pennsylvania has ranked second among the 50 states in its number of children with elevated blood lead levels — no state law compelled them to do that testing.

Even a new state law only urges schools to do lead testing at their drinking water sources by the end of this school year. (More on that later.)

According to a 2016 study by the Journal of Pediatrics, Lancaster County was among the 20 U.S. counties with the highest levels of lead exposure in children — mostly due to lead paint in old buildings but also because of corroding lead in outdated plumbing fixtures.

Following the voluntary testing at the 65-year-old Akron Elementary School, a drinking fountain in a classroom and eight classroom sinks were shut down, Crable explained, “because, even after attempted repairs and re-tests, water still contained unsafe levels of the toxic metal.”

We can understand why the Benders would worry.

Parents left in the dark

Not directly notifying parents of the lead testing results was a lousy call.

And we say that not just to Ephrata Area School District officials.

“In three of the four school districts where unsafe levels of lead were found from voluntary testing, no letters were sent home to parents notifying them of the problem,” Crable reported.

This was despite U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines that say schools should share lead test results with parents, teachers and students.

Ephrata says the matter was discussed at a public meeting of the school board’s budget and finance committee in May 2017.

But most parents don’t attend school board meetings — let alone board committee meetings.

Ephrata Area Superintendent Brian Troop finally emailed a letter Sunday alerting parents to the results — after the LNP investigation was published.

The School District of Lancaster and Solanco School District cited a 2016 LNP article on lead issues in their schools as the means through which parents were informed. LNP does have considerable reach, but a single newspaper article should not replace direct communication with families.

Solanco also posted notifications in its two affected schools and on the district website, which is better but still not adequate.

Only Penn Manor and Pequea Valley school districts sent letters home to parents and caregivers after lead had been found in school water. We applaud them.

Notably, Penn Manor Superintendent Mike Leichliter sought the opinion of a medical toxicologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia about whether students at one elementary school needed to be tested (they didn’t). We appreciate his concern for the children of his district.

Tougher law needed

Some of Lancaster County's 17 school districts already have completed the lead testing that the new state law calls to be conducted this school year. Other districts, plus the La Academia Partnership Charter School, are awaiting results.

We’d strongly urge every district to disclose the results of this testing to parents.

Stephanie Wein, clean water and conservation advocate for the environmental group PennEnvironment, told Crable that school officials can’t rely on school board meetings and websites to disseminate the results of lead testing.

We agree.

Wein’s organization supports a soon-to-be-introduced state bill that would call for “direct disclosure” to parents.

We also agree with state Rep. Karen Boback, a Republican from Luzerne County and a former teacher, who believes the new state law didn’t go far enough.

She had introduced a bill to require schools to inform parents of lead-testing results. She also thinks all schools should be mandated to perform lead tests.

Inexplicably, the new state law contains an opt-out provision for districts that claim financial hardship. This defies logic, as lead poisoning in children can cause the very cognitive issues that lead children to require costly special education services.

Lawmakers ought to heed the words of their colleague, who correctly asserts that lead testing is not a frivolous expense. As Boback put it: “Lead poisoning, God forbid, would be tragic.”

Note: Editorial was updated Wednesday afternoon to include mention of Donegal School District. 

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