Problematic lead levels found in 25% of CPS schools tested

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Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), along with teachers’ union officials and other members of the Chicago City Council Progressive Reform Caucus, proposed a hearing during City Council’s June 22 meeting in which aldermen and community members could discuss recently discovered lead contamination in the water systems of 14 Chicago Public Schools.
| Jacob Wittich/For the Sun-Times

As Chicago Public Schools continues to test drinking water for lead, 19 schools — about 25 percent of those with available results — have been found with problematic lead levels.

With results now available from 74 elementary schools, CPS announced Monday that water at five more schools tested above Environmental Protection Agency action levels of 15 parts per billion.

Perhaps most troubling was lead in a drinking fountain and three sinks at Blair Early Childhood Center, 6751 W 63rd Pl., which serves

children in grades pre-K through 2nd grade with physical and cognitive problems. During some rounds of testing, water at the special education school had lead present at hundreds of particles per billion. Exposure to lead has been linked to cognitive development problems in young children.

Four drinking fountains at Wentworth Elementary School, 1340 W. 71st

St., also have been shut down as a result, CPS said. Chappell, 2135 W. Foster Ave., and Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy, 4420 S. Sacramento

Ave., each had high lead levels in a kitchen sink, and Durkin Park

Elementary School, 8445 S. Kolin Ave. also had a problematic sink.

The district says it hired two private companies to test “out of an abundance of caution” in the wake of the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, but the rate of schools with lead in their water has risen from about one in five last week to about one in four.

Aldermen from the Progressive Reform Caucus met at City Hall on Monday morning to call for City Council hearings. They said they would introduce a nonbinding resolution at neat week’s Council meeting.

“In 2016 it is unacceptable that we’ve reached the risk of putting our children in harm’s way just by sending them to school,” Caucus leader Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said. “Lead shouldn’t be in our vocabulary in this day and age. We know how to get rid of it, we know how to test for it and we know how to keep our kids safe from it.”

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner responded in a statement, “If City Council would like to hold hearings to learn more about the program, CPS officials would be happy to join the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Chicago Department of Water Management to testify about our efforts to test the water of every school in the district for lead, as well as our plans to resolve issues where they are found.”

The district says about 4 percent of fixtures tested have come back with a sample above the EPA’s action level — or 41 out of 1,007.

The district promised to test 324 schools by early next week when classes end. It has prioritized those buildings most at risk because they have a pre-K program, are in structures built before 1986 and have cooking kitchens. About 224 have been completed; eventually all schools will be tested.

The problem fixtures have been shut off, Bittner said, and parents at each of the schools have been notified. CPS is developing plans to fix the problems.

Reilly Elementary School, previously announced to have very high levels of lead in water fountains and kindergarten sinks, will be retested Tuesday to see whether plumbing fixes have worked. Meanwhile, water coolers are being provided while the fixtures are shut off.

Taliaferro said he hopes that CPS officials, public health experts, parents and others will be able to join the proposed public hearing to testify for new legislation to address issues of lead contamination in the city’s water.

“This isn’t just a Chicago issue, it’s a national issue, and we are looking for the federal government to come to the table as well as the state and the City of Chicago water department to address the City Council and discuss the issues that are facing Chicagoans,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd).

Taliaferro added that parents should speak to their children’s principals about ensuring every district school has its water tested and he thinks most, if not all schools should have their water tested before school resumes in the fall.

John Kugler, a Chicago Teachers Union field representative, said the union filed a grievance regarding the water testing on May 2 with CPS but the district has yet to officially respond. The grievance demands information about the district’s water testing; training for employees on how to identify safety hazards within the workplace; how to protect children from lead contamination; and testing for CPS staff members who also drink the schools’ water.

CTU officer Michael Brunson urged aldermen and community members to get involved in the city’s water testing for the safety of CPS students. He said he knows from teaching that one of kids’ favorite pastimes in school is to take a break and drink water, so it is important that the water they are drinking is safe.

“We have to make sure [students] are in a safe environment and the water must be safe because it does not take very much lead to damage a child for life,” Brunson said.

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