A Senate committee hearing Tuesday heard the state Secretary of Education apologize about the way lead testing in schools was handled and that trained pros will handle testing instead of school staff.
Through a federal grant, the Department of Education began a sampling initiative in October, 2020 to identify the levels of lead within drinking water at schools.
“While well-intentioned, mistakes were made in this initial lead sampling including testing buildings during COVID-19 closures and testing many nonconsumption sources,” said Secretary Mark Holodick.
“We also didn’t communicate the results nearly as well as needed. We didn’t communicate well with our partners, meaning our districts, we didn’t communicate well with our communities or the state as a whole.”
Testing for lead again
Last month, the state hired Batta Environmental, a New York environmental consultant, to retest all fixtures that showed dangerously high levels of lead.
The state didn’t have a lot of confidence in the first round of sampling conducted via the federal grant. It used school staff to take samples.
“This time trained professional staff are completing the testing,” Holodick said.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which provided the $209,000 grant to Delaware in 2020. says that anything over .015 milligrams of lead per liter of water is dangerous.
Sen, Laura Sturgeon, D-Hockessin, chair of the Senate Education Committee, asked how the state plans to fund this second round of testing.
It will use $1.35 million in state general funds provided by the Office of Management and Budget, said Kim Klein from the Department of Education.
First-year Senator Eric Buckson, R-Dover, questioned if the expense is worth it.
“Water is a very small percentage of what contributes to a child’s high level of lead poisoning,” he said. “So if a child has elevated levels of lead in their blood, would you expect that to be 100% or majority contributed to a high level of lead in a school that’s been identified as a high level of lead?”
Dr. Jonathan Miller, a pediatrician at Nemours, said he would not assume that the school was the main source.
Miller told the Senate Health and Social Services Committee that children 6 years old and under are most vulnerable to lead poisoning and having lead negatively affects their brain development.
Some of the side effects are loss of appetite, feeling tired or irritable, poor growth, nausea and vomiting, constipation, stomach pain, joint pain, muscle weakness and headaches.
“As a state government, we have a unique constitutional responsibility and moral responsibility to make sure that our schools are not contributing to that problem, whether it’s 1%, 2%, 5%, 10%, 15%,” said Sen. Sarah McBride, D-Claymont.
Delaware Health and Social Services offers blood lead screenings by appointment for all ages at public health clinics that are located throughout the state.
Miller suggested any child under 6 as well as anyone who has any of the symptoms of lead poisoning should be tested.
Holodick said the state will only be looking at sources where students could possibly drink the water.
“We are this time around testing consumption points and we have made it abundantly clear,” Holodick said, “so for most folks, they would assume those are water fountains, water filling stations and such.”
However, he said, some sinks can turn into consumption points.
“Having taught in Colonial, I recall hundreds of times filling up coffee pots out of sinks in the faculty lounge,” Holodick said. “It’s really really important to communicate with the school and try to gauge exactly what a consumption point is, because if indeed we’re filling up a coffee pot every morning in a faculty bathroom because it’s convenient, as we move forward that’s a consumption point.”
Kindergarten teacher Omeka Mumford of Evan G. Shortlidge Academy has previously pointed out that students often drink from sink spigots in bathrooms.
“Even with water bottles, they’ll somehow come out of the bathroom and their whole shirt is wet,” she said at a Red Clay committee meeting in December 2022.
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Holodick said schools could put signage out that says which water fixtures are for consumption and which aren’t.
He also said he doesn’t want to rush this round of testing. It should be completed by late April, he said.
“At the risk of these sounding like excuses, I’ll just preface it all with the way in which the department delivered this grant was unacceptable,” Holodick said. “It has led to a hit in public trust… The only way to really get it back is to deliver on what we’re doing now.”
He expects some mistakes to happen in this round of testing but said these results should be more accurate because they are handled by professionals and there’s been more and clearer communication between state agencies, school districts and families.
“If we make a mistake we’ll own it from the door, and there will be mistakes made along the way,” he said. “You can’t possibly try to test samples in 250 schools and not run into challenges and make some mistakes, but when we do we’ll work with our districts to course correct.”
For more information on lead exposure, the state’s remediation plan, testing resources and sample results for each school, click here.
Raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Jarek earned a B.A. in journalism and a B.A. in political science from Temple University in 2021. After running CNN’s Michael Smerconish’s YouTube channel, Jarek became a reporter for the Bucks County Herald before joining Delaware LIVE News.
Jarek can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at (215) 450-9982. Follow him on Twitter @jarekrutz and on LinkedIn
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