Lead alarms went unheeded

April 10, 2004, midnight | 20 years, 3 months ago

by John Mathwin, Blair journalism teacher

The following is a reprint of a letter to the editor published in the Washington Post on April 10, 2004.

When chemistry teacher Stephen Robertson's students alerted Montgomery County Public Schools officials that drinking fountains at Seneca Valley High School had elevated levels of lead [Metro, March 27], it marked the second time that students had warned the school system about lead problems.

In 1986 the county discovered that the water from many of its drinking fountains was contaminated with lead. Its solution was to instruct janitors to flush the fountains daily. But two years later, none of the janitors at the school were I teach, Montgomery Blair High School, knew anything about a flushing program. Science students tested the water again and found elevated lead levels in several fountains.

An article in the student newspaper, Silver Chips, led the school system to test all of its fountains in the spring of 1989. Although one-third were contaminated, the Superintendent's Bulletin, the system's weekly newsmagazine, bragged that most school fountains provided clean water and admitted only grudgingly that some problems remained.

According to a recent e-mail from school system spokesman Brian Porter, the solution to the latest problems is the already-discredited flushing system, which has supposedly been in effect since 1989. But the first school to test positive from lead in the latest scare has admitted to not flushing daily, according to an article in Silver Chips Online, and another school that tested positive said it flushes on an "as-needed basis," whatever that means.

Rather than checking other schools for lead, the school officials Mr. Robertson notified about his students' lead findings have been checking with local doctors to see whether anyone in the Germantown area has keeled over from the effects of ingesting water at school. These officials must not be well-acquainted with the slow and sometimes imperceptible effects of lead on the brain.

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