36 schools fined for lead-based violations

City sites failed to shut off fountains, alert students

March 14, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Despite two weeks of warnings and school officials' repeated promises of compliance, the city's top health official was forced yesterday to fine 36 schools a total of about $4,000 for failing to protect children from possible lead contamination.

During inspections yesterday and Wednesday, Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson found 39 instances - some schools had more than one violation - in which school administrators had failed to comply with an order to shut off drinking fountains and alert students that hand and kitchen sinks are only for washing hands.

Beilenson also said yesterday that his office would soon begin testing pupils at the 15 elementary schools with the highest concentrations of lead in the drinking water.

"I honestly don't know how this is still a problem," said Beilenson, stammering out of frustration. "Everybody takes this seriously, it seems, but the facilities folks at the school level."

School system Chief Operating Officer Mark Smolarz said school officials are contacting each of the principals in schools that were out of compliance.

"We are looking at each one of these violations," Smolarz said. "We're going to get this done. We will have this resolved to the health commissioner's satisfaction."

The fines - $100 per citation each day - came two weeks after Beilenson's initial warning that he would take action against any schools that had operating drinking fountains or weren't appropriately advising students to avoid other school water sources. Of the 39 citations, 19 were for fountains still in operation, and 20 were for inadequate signs at hand sinks.

"And every day that this continues will be an additional $100 fine," Beilenson said.

The department's Feb. 26 order was an effort to prevent possible lead contamination - a decade after fountains in many schools were found to be dispensing lead-tainted water.

Health department and school officials agreed that students and school staff would be best protected if all drinking fountains were disabled and replaced with bottled water coolers, and with warning signs posted at hand sinks. Beilenson's order gave the schools one week to comply; school officials said then it would be done sooner.

Yesterday, City Council President Sheila Dixon called for an emergency hearing of the school system's leaders, and health department, public works and Environmental Protection Agency representatives.

"The unhealthy counts of lead in our public school water system are unacceptable," she said in a release.

Beilenson and health department employees have been inspecting schools all week. By yesterday, they had checked 134 of the system's 173 schools, including all elementary schools. The remainder will be inspected by the end of next week, he said.

Most of the violations were found in elementary schools, Beilenson said, which is the age group in which children are most likely to be detrimentally affected by lead exposure.

Beilenson's office had not determined which schools had the highest levels of lead in water. The EPA has set a safety standard for lead at 20 parts per billion, and a study in the early 1990s found many city schools with fountains far exceeding that level.

Smolarz said the fines will be paid out of the school system's operating budget, which is overspent.

"It just adds to the deficit," Smolarz said.

Beilenson said the daily fines should spur school leaders to quickly comply with his order.

"We have to depend on the school system to make sure this is done," Beilenson said. "We cannot keep going back ... to every single school to make sure that this is happening. They have to be held accountable."

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