School's lead paint angers St. Louis parents

Tuesday, December 2, 2008 | 4:54 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — Some parents in St. Louis are angry that 27 grade schools have potential lead paint hazards, but the district does not have money budgeted to fix the problem.

About two dozen people attended a rally Tuesday outside Roe Elementary School to demand that the district remove lead paint from grade schools. Peeling paint was visible around windows on the building exterior, including those directly above children's play areas.

"I think it's just unconscionable that some solution can't be found," said Darren O'Brien, the father of two grade school children.

The YMCA of Greater St. Louis said it could not accept preschool-aged children into a before- and after-school care program at Roe this year after a state inspection showed lead. Students at the school used to attend Wilkinson Elementary, but were moved to Roe this year. Now, some parents are wondering if it's safe for grade-school children to be there during the day.

Children under age 6 are particularly at risk for harmful health effects from peeling lead-based paint, which they may ingest if they put an object covered in lead dust in their mouths, or if they eat lead paint chips. Because their brains and nervous systems are still developing, too much lead exposure can lead to learning disabilities, behavioral issues and physical problems, such as kidney damage.

The school district's director of operations, Roger CayCe, compiled a list last month of 28 of the district's 52 elementary schools that need lead abatement work done, based on findings from 2004.

He estimated abatement would cost $2.8 million, but said Monday that roughly 20 percent more than that would be needed for updated inspections and testing.

He also said the number of schools has dropped to 27, as one on the list does not have students under 6. Twenty-two schools in the district had lead abatement work done from 2004 into 2007.

There is no money in the budget for lead abatement, he said.

"As an educator and person in operations, we'd like to have any hazards abated in our schools. It is a concern," CayCe said.

For now, workers are using vacuums with filters to trap lead dust or paint chips around doors and on playgrounds in the elementary schools. CayCe said the district also does spot repairs as needed when a concern is raised. Outside workers would need to be brought in for abatement.

The Rev. Elston McCowan, a Green Party candidate opposing incumbent Democrat Francis Slay in next year's mayoral election, said people have known for decades that exposing children to lead could harm them. Lead paint has been banned for residential use since 1978, but is still present in older buildings.

"We don't want to be apathetic about a problem just because somebody hasn't solved it," he said.

St. Louis has made remarkable strides in recent years to reduce childhood lead poisoning, said Slay's campaign spokesman and chief of staff Jeff Rainford. Lead poisoning in St. Louis children has dropped dramatically from about 16 percent of children tested in 2001 to about 4 percent in 2008.

The city's effort has largely focused on work to make homes safer. And advocates for childhood lead prevention say that's where the emphasis should be.

While there were calls at the rally to make city schools lead-free, experts say the focus should be on lead hazards, rather than just lead paint. Peeling lead-based paint and friction points, or places that generate lead dust, such as the opening of a window frame covered in the paint, especially need to be addressed, they said.

Patrick MacRoy, the executive director of the Washington-based Alliance for Healthy Homes, said blood lead levels tend to peak between the ages of 2 and 3, and those children typically aren't at school.

"Trying to remove all the lead from schools isn't going to be a sensible, cost-effective strategy because it isn't usually where children are being exposed to lead," he said. "That said, lead exposure is not good for anyone."

Fernando Serrano, an instructor at Saint Louis University's School of Public Health, said lead paint that's disturbed or in bad condition should be removed from city schools.

"We know what lead does to the body and the nervous system," he said. "That's the last thing we need in our schools — something that could keep children from reaching their full potential."

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