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Lead poisoning affecting literacy rates in Indianapolis

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A new report by the Paramount Health Data Project shows that lead poisoning in Indianapolis schools is affecting children’s literacy rates.

For the last five years, the organization conducted a longitudinal study across three schools in Indianapolis – Ascent Collegiate School, Brilliant Central School and Catalyst School.

RELATED: NAACP addresses lead poisoning, Testing students for elevated lead levels

Due to federal research guidelines, the three Indianapolis schools were given pseudonyms in the publicly released research. Named, the ABCs of Academic Health, the report shows an issue with school readiness due to lead.

“We recognized that the impact of lead in the water had drastic impacts for the Catalyst school. They were in the NAACP report several years ago, and they had devastating levels of lead in their building. So, I think the impact of lead on literacy rates in Indianapolis, we can’t separate those two issues,” said Dr. Addie Angelov, CEO and co-founder of Paramount Health Data Project.

“I think what is also important is that the number of African American males who are getting a daily medication in schools, remember these are K through eighth grades with kids under the age of 13, are shockingly high.”

Lead poisoning report for schools

Paramount Health Data Project is an Indiana-based nonprofit incubated out of an elementary school on the east side of Indianapolis.

The nonprofit completes research that correlates academic achievement with student health.

It completes reports for schools two to three times a year and publishes peer-reviewed research.

“In School 42, there was a kindergartner who was picking paint off a wall and was eating it. We found out that we could call the Marion County Health Department to come in and test the child because we didn’t know if the paint had lead in it,” said Garry Holland with the Greater Indianapolis NAACP.

The Indianapolis NAACP began testing all kindergarten and first-graders in the school in 2017. It also tested the soil on the playground.

“There wasn’t any lead there, but there was an indication of a pipe behind the wall that may have had lead in it. Then we asked for the water report,” said Holland.

The NAACP asked the Marion County Health Department to test 13 school districts for lead.
Lead in drinking water should not exceed 15 ppb (parts per billion), according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Lead testing water in schools

The American Pediatrics Society recommends that schools keep lead concentrations in water no greater than 1 ppb.

The health department found that daycares had 1,893 ppb coming out of water fountains: Lawrence Township had 2,743 ppb; Warren Township had 6,118 ppb; private schools had 8,630 ppb.

The lowest ppb other schools had was 73.65 ppb, with some districts and schools being in the hundreds.

“What that means is that some of these schools had straight poison water coming out of their faucets and sinks. We had a press conference with the mayor, a doctor and City-County Council,” said Holland.

“Lead poisoning causes comprehension problems, behavior issues, not being able to see the board and not being able to read. That was a factor in most urban schools. If the environment is toxic, then we needed legislation to combat that.”

Holland said Indianapolis, like many modern urban cities, suffers from a historic legacy of lead pollution.

Solutions to address lead in schools

House Bill 1138, proposed and passed in 2023, requires daycares, preschools and childcare facilities to test for lead by 2026.

New federal rules also require utility companies to test water at schools and daycares connected to public water systems starting in 2025.

“We also know that schools in Indiana have definitely struggled, especially in Indianapolis, to get school nurses, and they are not provided support with that endeavor because hospitals and medical professionals are paying top dollar for nurses right now,” said Angelov.

“So, we believe that telehealth with a certified nursing assistant option would be the most economical as well, making sure that schools could continue to provide health care even during the nurse shortage.”

At the end of the day, Angelov said healthier kids learn and perform better.

Coming out of COVID-19, she said they are seeing major issues with mental health, literacy and absenteeism for students.

Paramount’s research provides quantitative data to inform policy and support and obtain fiscal flexibility to provide school support.

“If we do not respond to these things, if we do not start helping schools navigate health issues, we are going to continue to see the same results we have right now,” said Angelov.
“The reality is, we have to do better, or we will continue to do the same things and expect different results.”

If parents or guardians are concerned that a child has been exposed to lead, they can request a blood test from a doctor or their local health department.

In Marion County, call the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at (317) 221-2155.

Contact staff writer Jade Jackson at (317) 762-7853 or by email JadeJ@IndyRecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @IAMJADEJACKSON. 

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