This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Notebook was launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first publication this spring. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.
From the Winter 2000 print edition:
by Rachel Mausner
In the wake of tests which revealed high lead levels in the drinking water at several city schools, the School District recently signed an agreement with the Health Department to test all sources of drinking water in city schools and take corrective action wherever dangerous lead levels are found.
Lead poisoning is a serious health risk for city children, who may take in dangerous quantities of lead from contaminated drinking water, lead-containing paint dust or contaminated soil.
The recent agreement, to be implemented immediately, is intended to remove the risk of lead exposure from school drinking water.
Lead is a powerful toxin that affects the development and functioning of all body organs, especially the central nervous system, blood-forming cells and kidneys. Its effects are most severe for young children and fetuses during development of the brain and central nervous system.
Even low levels of lead in a child’s body can result in reduced I.Q., learning disabilities, behavioral problems and loss of hearing.
Lead exposure is also dangerous for adults, particularly pregnant women. The greater the level of lead, the more serious will be the short-term and long-term health effects.
Although governmental regulations now forbid the use of lead in paint, plumbing and gasoline, lead exposure is still a major health problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 4.4 percent of children nationwide have elevated blood lead levels.
The rates are much higher for urban children. In Philadelphia in 1998, approximately 10 percent of children tested had moderately high levels and 3 percent had dangerously high blood lead levels. The Philadelphia Health Department has found these rates to be significantly higher among low-income African American children ages 18-35 months who live in old housing.
One way children are exposed is from lead that leaches into drinking water from the plumbing (lead pipes or solder were used before 1991), water coolers or faucets. Most Philadelphia public schools were built before 1991 and are at risk of having lead contamination in the water.
A December 12, 1999, column by Philadelphia Inquirer writer Tom Ferrick brought public attention to the risk of lead in school drinking water. Ferrick asserted that the Philadelphia School District had been resisting pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop a comprehensive water-testing program.
The School Board on January 11, 2000, approved a formal "Agreement on Drinking Water Safety" involving the Philadelphia Health Department and the Water Department, with EPA oversight.
According to EPA Regional Administrator Bradley Campbell, School Board President Pedro Ramos played a key role in bringing about the agreement.
Under this plan, the District will test all sources of drinking water in schools built before 1991, following procedures established by the EPA.
For any sources with lead levels greater than the legally allowed 20 parts per billion, the District will be required to develop a permanent remedy, which could include replacing the tap or pipes, using a filter, using bottled water, or permanently eliminating that water source.
Lead levels are highest in water that sits in the pipes for more than six hours, so the first water to run in the morning will be the most contaminated. In order to eliminate lead during the testing phase, District custodial staff are required to flush all drinking water sources before schools open every moming. The District estimates the cost of the flushing and testing program as $300,000 or more.
According to Barbara Farley of the District’s Office of Communications, parents can request information about the results of testing and any plans for correction at individual schools. This information can be requested through the District’s Environmental Management Office.
Farley said principals may not have this information. Farley said that while the District may close down some water fountains permanently, drinking water will always be available.
While drinking water can be a source of lead, the major danger for city children comes from lead-based paints used in all old houses. Most paint manufactured before 1978 contains extremely high levels of lead. According to Joseph Kauffman of the Philadelphia Health Department, over 99 percent of cases of lead poisoning in city children are caused by ingestion of lead-based paint.
In Philadelphia, most homes contain lead-based paint. Children may chew on painted surfaces or pick up chips from peeling paint. Children often ingest paint dust that they pick up on their hands.
Simple blood tests can determine how much lead a child has been exposed to. Parents can protect their children from lead by taking precautions
How to protect your children from lead Have your child tested for lead.
Children should be tested at 6 months, 1 year, and then yearly at least until age 3. Older children, ages 3-6 years, who have not been tested should receive a lead screening test. Request testing from your health care provider or clinic.
Protect children from eating lead dust or leaded soil.
- Keep children from eating or touching peeling, flaking paint.
- Wet-mop paint dust from floors, woodwork, and furniture weekly. Don’t use mops or rags for anything else.
Keep play areas clean. Wash toys, bottles and pacifiers regularly.
- Always wash children’s hands before they eat and after they play outdoors.
- If possible, don’t let children play directly in the dirt.
- For detailed guidance, request the EPA’s manual, Lead in Your Home: A Parent’s Reference Guide (EPA 747-8-98-002). [2014 UPDATE: A more recent booklet is available]
Reduce levels of lead dust in the home.
- If your home was built before 1978, have your home tested for lead. (For certified inspectors or risk assessors, call:
– Pa. Department of Health: (800) 440-LEAD [2014 UPDATE: In addition, more information is available at the EPA]
– National Lead Information Center Clearinghouse: (800) 424-LEAD [2014 UPDATE: Additional contact information for the clearinghouse is available]
– U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Lead listing: (888) LEAD-LIST
- Don’t try to remove lead paint yourself. Call the Philadelphia Health Dept or EPA for guidance. Only trained professionals should carry out lead abatement.
Flush lead out of drinking water.
- Always run the cold water for 2-3 minutes before using for cooking or drinking.
- Use only cold water for drinking, preparing baby formula or cooking.
Provide a diet high in iron, calcium and vitamin C. (This reduces the body’s uptake of lead.) Avoid fatty foods, which increase lead absorption.
- Serve a balanced diet with foods high in calcium (milk and other dairy products, greens), iron (meat, beans, tuna, eggs, greens) and vitamin C (citrus fruits and juices).
(Information provided by Philadelphia Health Department Environmental Protection Agency and Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth)