Get the lead out

March 16, 2003

IT'S A SAD spectacle: one branch of city government, the Health Department, imposing fines on another branch, the public school system, for failing to protect children from possible lead contamination. That's what happened last Thursday, when a frustrated health commissioner, Peter L. Beilenson, imposed daily fines totaling about $4,000 against 36 schools, most of them elementaries, for failing to comply with an order to shut off drinking fountains and alert students and staff that sinks are to be used only for hand-washing.

It's not that Dr. Beilenson cracked down without warning.

The Health Department has been prodding the school system to address this problem since 1999. But the real tragedy is that so little was done after Baltimore was alerted to the threat at least 13 years ago, when a federal audit found 11 city schools with high levels of lead in their water. And federal standards then were much stricter than they are today. The Health Department has offered to determine which 15 schools have the highest concentrations of lead and to test their students. How sad it would be if the high-lead schools of 1990 also appeared on the 2003 list.

Dr. Beilenson notified the school system two weeks ago that there remained potential for lead contamination in the water flowing in the fountains and sinks of schools, including water used to prepare school lunches. He ordered all fountains to be shut down and replaced by bottled water. The school system's chief operating officer, Mark Smolarz, says he was "let down" by his facilities staff, which "didn't see the urgency until there was a crisis."

That's an indictment not only of the facilities staff but also of the people at the top who oversee their work. When it comes to the health of thousands of students, teachers and other staff, this is an inexcusably missed deadline.

As special education teachers know full well, children with high lead levels may have serious problems with learning, delayed growth and hearing loss. Although experts say the doses of lead in contaminated drinking water may not be as damaging as inhaling lead-paint dust or eating paint flakes, in a city with a history of lead-paint poisoning among children, lead-tainted water only adds to the burden.

Baltimore banned lead paint in 1950, and aggressive action in recent years has reduced the incidence of lead-paint poisoning among children.

What a shame the school system has to be kicked in the behind with fines it can ill afford in order to fulfill a solemn responsibility to its students and staff.

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