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Families are just learning about high lead levels found in Indianapolis schools 2 years ago

More than two years ago, Lawrence Township Schools learned some of its water fixtures had lead levels as high as 182 times the federal bar for requiring intervention. The fixtures were replaced, but parents are only now learning about their children’s potential exposure to such high levels of lead.

Fourteen of the township’s schools are among 161 across Marion County that were found to have high levels of lead during voluntary testing in 2016-17. While all the fixtures have been fixed and the water sources retested and deemed safe, officials’ delay in informing parents means children likely weren’t immediately tested for high lead levels in their blood, a condition that can cause cognitive and developmental problems.

Local health officials still have not officially released the amount of lead found in specific fixtures, schools, or buildings — the Marion County Public Health Department’s report in January 2019 only included the number of elevated samples in each school, saying they were all corrected. And some districts also have not released specific information about which schools were affected, leaving parents unclear whether their child needs to be tested, years after they may have been exposed.

How much lead was found in schools’ water was revealed to the public for the first time on Sunday in an internal county health department report obtained and published by IndyStar. The report, dated May 2018, showed that Lawrence Township, Warren Township, and private schools had some of the highest levels recorded in the area.

Indiana University professor Janet McCabe said it is important to test children who are in high-risk areas for lead exposure, especially if they are younger than 6 years old — when the developing brain is particularly susceptible to the neurotoxin. Any amount of lead in the body is detrimental, she said.

“If there was a result in my child’s school that a water source that my child had access to had high levels of lead, I would want to know that, as a parent, and have the opportunity to have my child tested,” said McCabe, who runs the university’s Environmental Resilience Institute.

Awareness of lead in school drinking water has grown since the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Schools across the country have started taking corrective action, despite there being no federal mandate. Fifteen states and Washington, D.C. have passed policies on lead testing for school drinking water. Nine, including Illinois and Tennessee, mandate testing for schools.

Indiana does not mandate regular lead testing of school drinking water. Some districts do regularly test their water sources even without a mandate, but it’s difficult to tell how many or how frequently because they aren’t required to report the results to the public. The scattered reporting also makes it difficult to assess how prevalent of an issue lead is in Indiana’s drinking water.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends taking action when lead levels in drinking water reach 15 parts per billion. Lawrence Township’s levels ranged between 20 and 2,743 parts per billion, according to the newly released report. The report does not specify at which schools the samples were found.

Lawrence Township sent a letter to parents Monday addressing the newly released report, saying all of the district’s fixtures now meet federal standards. But the letter didn’t specify which schools were affected.

“We did not send out a formal district communication until today,” district spokeswoman Dana Altemeyer said Monday. “But when the district found out that they had these 28 fixtures that were in question, they were immediately replaced.”

After hearing about the potential lead exposure from Chalkbeat for the first time on Monday, Lawrence parent Chris Gunn said he was glad the problem is fixed, but that he would have liked to know about it sooner.

“Being informed during that period there was an issue would probably be the right thing to do,” he said. “If there was anything that was dangerous during that time period, it would be good to be able to understand.”

Warren Township Schools reported the highest lead concentration among public districts in the area, according to the internal report. The district had more than 50 concerning samples, which ranged from 20 to 5,117 parts per billion.

Warren Township spokesman Dennis Jarrett did not respond to questions from Chalkbeat about whether families were informed about lead in their schools.

After receiving the initial results from the health department, the district replaced 56 faucets and fixtures, Jarrett said in an email statement Monday night.

“The health and safety of our students and staff is our number one priority,” the district said in a statement. “We are continuing to monitor this situation and will be conducting routine water sample testing each spring.”

Some private schools also saw high levels of lead in the water, with results ranging from 20 to 8,630 parts per billion. Concerning levels were found in more than 40 samples across 13 schools, but the report does not identify the tested schools or their levels.

The samples with high levels of lead may have come from a fountain or faucet that hadn’t been used in years, said Marion County Department of Health spokesman Curt Brantingham. Lead may have built up over time and wasn’t flushed before the water was tested. But he couldn’t say definitively that’s what happened at these schools.

The May 2018 report published by IndyStar was a rough draft and was not intended for publication, Brantingham said on Monday. The fixture-specific data was shared directly with school districts, he said, and the department left it up to administrators to decide whether to share the results with parents.

In 2017, the health department also tested the blood of about 10% of children in the county between the ages of 0 and 5. Of the children tested, 2.8% had elevated levels of lead in their blood — which fell below the national average of 4%. Dust and lead paint are other common causes of lead exposure.

Last year, two of Indianapolis’ largest school districts — Indianapolis Public Schools and Pike Township Schools — and mayor-authorized charter schools offered free lead screening for kindergartners and first-graders.

State lawmakers filed three bills this year that attempt to address exposure to lead through drinking water. Two would require testing in Lake County, where contamination from a lead plant has raised concerns. One bill, authored by Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, would require students statewide to be tested for lead in their blood when they enroll in school.

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