Archive for Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Lead paint in schools raises health concerns

Tests find potential problem at Cordley

June 17, 2003


Autistic children in a basement classroom at Cordley School have been exposed to flaking lead-based paint that could cause health problems.

"There is a significant problem," said Dr. John Hiebert, a Lawrence cardiologist who collected paint chip samples sent to a lab for testing. "Why in the world would the district put children in this room?"

Independent laboratory tests of the samples from Cordley showed evidence of lead in chips from the classroom wall and an entrance to the school.

Lead has been shown to affect developing brains by causing learning and behavior problems. Children under the age of 6 are most at risk because they're more likely to eat paint flakes or come in contact with lead dust and stick fingers in their mouths. Lead can affect unborn children if too much gets in the bodies of pregnant women, as well as cause muscle pain, high blood pressure and memory loss in adults.

"I do not know whether children have been harmed, but we need to know," Hiebert said. "We must know what the risks of exposure are and what other toxins there are at Cordley."

The district has no plans to test children who might have been exposed to lead paint at school.

Lead paint is probably present in other Lawrence schools, as well as homes and other structures constructed more than 25 years ago. Lead paint was banned in 1978.

Cordley and 15 other schools in the Lawrence district were built before that date.

Rules vs. common sense

Rebecca Lyles, foreground, and Christie Yancy paint a hallway at
Cordley School, 1837 Vt. Tests of flaking paint at the school show
that students may have been exposed to lead, which can cause health
problems in children. Lead paint is present in many structures
built before 1978, the year it was banned.

Rebecca Lyles, foreground, and Christie Yancy paint a hallway at Cordley School, 1837 Vt. Tests of flaking paint at the school show that students may have been exposed to lead, which can cause health problems in children. Lead paint is present in many structures built before 1978, the year it was banned.

Supt. Randy Weseman said the district was in compliance with state and federal regulations regarding lead paint.

"We're going to do everything so that our kids are safe. That's an iron-clad guarantee," he said.

But Hiebert said common sense dictates the district go beyond government rules. He said the district should:

  • Assess the condition of lead-painted surfaces in all buildings, especially elementary schools.
  • Test students who might have been exposed for lead poisoning.
  • Use certified personnel to clean or repair areas with lead paint.
  • Work with community members on an informational campaign to eradicate lead paint dangers.

Joan Kelley, the parent of a boy with autism who has been in and out of the basement classroom at Cordley for five years, said she supported testing. While grateful for the education her son, Aiden, has received at Cordley, Kelley said talk of lead contamination was disturbing.

"Educationally, there is no better school for Aiden than Cordley," Kelley said, but "I'd sure hope, if they (administrators) have any integrity, they would at least test those children with autism."

Renovation practices

The interior of Cordley is being painted with latex-based paint this summer. District administrators said the work has nothing to do with complaints about lead paint in the building.

Lois Orth-Lopes, who has taught nine years in the autism program at Cordley, said the issue of lead paint hadn't surfaced in her nine years there.

"I have no reason to suggest our kids have ingested paint," she said.

Sue Morgan, a Lawrence school board member, said district staff met with Kansas Department of Health and Environment representatives about issues raised by Hiebert.

In response, she said, the district plans to put key employees through a lead training program.

The district will comply with federal lead-safe work practices when delving into maintenance and renovation projects, she said. Job sites will be tested for lead residue after work is finished, she said.

Sixteen Lawrence schools built before 1978 are likely to have walls treated with lead-based paint:Secondary -- Lawrence High School, and South, West and Central junior high schools.Elementary -- Broken Arrow, Cordley, Deerfield, East Heights, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney, Schwegler, Sunset Hill, Wakarusa Valley and Woodlawn.

KDHE has no authority to mandate testing of school buildings or children in a school, and the district at this time doesn't plan to move ahead with either.

"There was no suggestion from them (KDHE) of testing of children and taking on abatement projects for all our buildings or anything of that nature," Morgan said.

She said the mere presence of lead paint on a wall shouldn't be considered a risk to children. The danger is ingestion of chips or dust, she said.

"When projects are taken on in any of our buildings we will certainly make sure our kids will never be put in an unsafe environment because of the disturbance of paint," Morgan said.

Rick Gammill, the district's director of transportation, safety and facilities planning, said the cost of a complete lead abatement program would be "astronomical."

Issue emerges

The issue of lead paint in schools emerged as the school board was preparing to vote in May to close Centennial, Riverside and East Heights elementary schools.

Cordley became a focus of those opposed to consolidating some schools, because many students will transfer from Centennial to Cordley.

At a meeting in which the board unanimously approved closure of the three schools, school closure opponent Burdett Loomis offered a warning about peeling paint.

"If you vote to close Centennial tonight, you are finessing a potentially dangerous issue," Loomis said.

The timing of the complaints raised questions in the mind of Morgan, who voted to close the schools.

"We're concerned about safety and we're not just concerned about safety in one building," she said. "We're not concerned because that building happens to be a cog in the wheel of some changes."

Hiebert said his primary consideration was the health of students at Cordley and the other older buildings.

An April article in The New England Journal of Medicine sparked his interest because it indicated blood lead levels officially considered safe since 1991 are now thought to hurt a child's intellectual development. The federal "level of concern" of 10 micrograms per deciliter might cut a child's IQ up to 7.4 points, the article said. The average IQ is about 100.

"The concern is that there may not be a level of lead exposure that is safe," Hiebert said.

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