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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Marion County schools test positive for lead

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Fifty-four percent of 295 schools — both public and private — in Marion County tested positive for lead in water supplies. The schools were included in a study by the Marion County Public Health Department, which began in 2017. Schools with contaminated water sources were notified in 2018.

In many cases, however, parents and guardians were not informed of the issue until the study was made public in January 2020.

The Metropolitan School District (MSD) of Warren Township had the highest lead concentration among local public schools, according to an internal health department report, which was obtained and published by the Indianapolis Star earlier this year. The district had more than 50 water sources throughout the township surpass lead levels deemed acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The MSD of Warren Township — along with several school districts in the county — waited  until the study was released publicly before informing parents of the problem. Dennis Jarrett, director of media and community relations for the district, declined to make school officials available to discuss the issue, instead forwarding a statement from the township, which was released when the study became public:

“In 2016-17, the Marion County Health Department offered all Marion County school districts free voluntary water testing in their schools,” the statement reads. “MSD Warren Township accepted this opportunity to test water samples in all of our schools. After the initial water sample testing results were provided to the district, 56 faucets/fixtures were replaced. A full report was published by the Marion County Health Department acknowledging that the identified areas of concern had been addressed and that all of the faucets/fixtures in our schools were in compliance with EPA standards at the time of the second testing.”

Other school districts with high lead levels include the Metropolitan School Districts of Lawrence, Pike and Wayne.

Mary Lang, a chief of communications for Wayne Township schools, said 23 faulty water sources were replaced within two weeks, but no mass communication was shared with families.

Officials from Lawrence Township schools confirmed that every contaminated water source in the district was repaired. Director of Communications Dana Altemeyer declined to explain why the school administration failed to inform parents of the contamination sooner. 

While the faulty water sources throughout Marion County schools have been repaired or disassembled, the short- and long-term impact on students has yet to be determined.

Karla Johnson, an administrator for the Marion County Public Health Department and leader of the study, said this was the first comprehensive test of water in Marion County schools, and as a result, there is no way of knowing how many children were exposed to lead at school.

The short-term effects of lead exposure include a lower IQ and difficulty with attention and learning, as well as long-term effects such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, reduced fertility and possibly cancer after prolonged exposure. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children younger than 7 are most susceptible to lead poisoning, and African American children are more likely to have high exposure to lead due to risk factors such as poverty.

Despite the developmental and health impacts lead exposure can have on children, Johnson seemed to downplay the findings of the study. 

“People should keep the water report in perspective,” Johnson said. “Schools were extremely cooperative and were as concerned as any parent. … Children are more likely to be exposed [to lead] at home, because that’s where they spend most of their time.”

The United States Department of Health and Human Services estimates American children spend more than seven hours a day in school, factoring in after school activities. This adds up to more than 35 hours a week children risk being exposed to lead-contaminated water. In addition, contaminated water causes up to 20% of lead poisoning cases in the United States, according to the EPA. 

Because of the long hours spent at school and the risk of exposure, some lawmakers believe schools should take more responsibility for tracking lead levels and students who have lead poisoning.

State Sen. Jean Breaux of District 34 proposed Senate Bill 286, which would require schools to test any child enrolling for lead poisoning, and continuously monitor students who test positive.

“Lead is a problem in multiple Hoosier cities, and we know that children in low-income, minority communities around the state are more susceptible to lead poisoning,” Breaux said in a statement. “ … Hoosier kids should have the right to a safe environment at home and in their schools. … Our state has the opportunity to pursue impactful public health policies to reduce these racial inequalities in our children’s health. My proposal, Senate Bill 286, aims to provide transparency and make sure parents know if their children have high amounts of lead in their blood.”

SB 286 did not receive a hearing in the Senate before the deadline to advance it to the Indiana House of Representatives, effectively killing the bill this session. 

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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