Fountains with lead remained in schools

Plan to use bottled water was never carried out, despite contamination

February 07, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

More than a decade after discovering that drinking fountains in scores of city schools were dispensing lead-tainted water, the Baltimore city school system still has not replaced many of the fountains with bottled water coolers that officials had said would be installed years ago.

And until recently, no one had ensured that all the fountains dispensing contaminated water were turned off, school officials admitted.

"Parents need to be alerted to the fact that their children are being placed in danger," said James Williams Sr., a Parent Teacher Association member who embarked on a one-man crusade checking on fountains in city schools.

Williams found that students in many schools were still drinking from fountains that were supposed to be shut down and presented his findings Jan. 27 to the school system's facilities committee where school board members were livid.

"Let's get real," said board member J. Tyson Tildon. "This is health. This is so critical. It blows my mind. I thought this had been done three years ago."

Mark Smolarz, chief operating officer of the school system, said yesterday that all school water fountains have been ordered shut off, and that water coolers would be placed in every school by the end of the month -- even schools where the fountain water is reportedly safe.

"We have coolers in about 120 schools already," Smolarz said, "but we need to do it at all our schools."

Williams, the father of a Baltimore student who suffered from lead-paint poisoning in the 1990s, visited about a dozen schools during the past several months to determine whether children still were drinking from water fountains reported in the early 1990s to have high lead levels.

The schools where he found lead-tainted water fountains still in use included Waverly Elementary, Hampden Elementary, Steuart Hill Elementary and Patterson Senior Academy.

At nearly every school Williams inspected, fountains that were reported to have water contaminated with lead at more than 20 parts per billion -- the safety standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency -- were operating.

In some cases, principals didn't know the fountains were unsafe, despite the fact that the water sampling reports were supposedly distributed to each school more than 10 years ago.

The principal at Fallstaff Middle School was unaware of the water report on her school until Williams handed her the 1992 analysis indicating lead levels there were well over the safety guidelines.

"This, I think, is an example where something went wrong in the management of the school system," said Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, a nonprofit organization based in Canton. "The [school district's] facilities managers have known about this for a long time. This is a case where, when they found out something, they did nothing."

The presence of lead in school drinking fountains was first documented in the early 1990s, when school officials commissioned an outside engineering company -- Spotts Stevens and McCoy Inc. -- to test water from fountains and school sinks for lead contamination. School officials said sinks and fountains with unsafe lead levels would be turned off and water coolers similar to those in many offices would replace them.

By 1993, the fountains were shut down in most cases, said city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson. But over the years, as new principals have been hired, somehow many were re-activated.

"Maybe principals misplaced the report. Maybe some of the newer principals didn't know about the lead issues. I don't know," Beilenson said. "I suppose you could say we should've gone back and checked, but there was no reason to believe that they weren't" turned off.

During the past year, Beilenson said, the health department -- concerned that fountains with tainted water were in use again -- began checking on the school system. In July, his department wrote to schools chief Carmen V. Russo asking her to disconnect any fountains noted in the 1992 reports that still were turned on.

Russo sent a memo in October urging principals to comply with the federal guidelines for disconnecting fountains. She said water coolers would be ordered, and "Handwashing Only" signs were to be posted at contaminated sinks.

In some schools, the guidelines were followed. In others, they were apparently ignored, forgotten or overlooked.

"Some of the fountains were being cut off but there was no alternative source," Williams said. "In some schools, the water coolers were being placed in the faculty lounge and the main office."

Beilenson said he issued another plea last month.

"I think we are just about there," Beilenson said.

Still, the school system's handling of the problem leaves some troubled.

"There has been an illogical delay in responding to this," said Norton of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. "The school system in 1992 should have taken action. Kids were getting poisoned. Pregnant teachers were ingesting toxic water. I think the school system failed in its basic duties of health and safety of the students."

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