Report coming soon on lead exposure in Memphis students following water tests in schools

This water fountain at Idlewild Elementary School in Memphis was turned off after test results showed high levels of lead.
The health department had planned to provide blood tests for students at 35 affected schools in the district. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

Memphians will soon know more about the extent of lead exposure in students who attended the three dozen schools that found high levels of the toxic metal in water sources a year ago. 

The Shelby County Health Department plans to present results from blood tests of students to the county commission in coming weeks.  

If the results show large numbers of students have elevated lead levels, they could spur more services for affected Shelby County Schools students since even low levels can slow brain development, increase impulsive behavior, and cause inattentiveness. Efforts in other cities to provide nutrition education, get a doctor’s evaluation, and make sure students aren’t exposed to more lead have helped boost test scores and reduce violent behavior. 

Health department officials have not revealed how many tests they conducted before the pandemic, although they had planned to test most of the 21,000 students in 35 Memphis schools that reported high lead levels. A month after Chalkbeat began asking if a report existed, a department spokeswoman said that it was on Director Alisa Haushalter’s desk and undergoing final edits. 

The health department’s free optional finger-prick tests, which started in November 2019 and were scheduled to go until mid-March, sought to find out if students and staff had 5 micrograms or more of lead per deciliter of blood — although no amount is considered safe.  

Parent Kristy Sullivan said the health department told her in March that her daughter’s blood sample, taken at Idlewild Elementary School, was not usable. The health department offered to retest her, but Sullivan was worried about contracting COVID-19, she said. 

The school water test results prompted her to question other ways her children could be exposed to lead. She got water tests done at her house and asked about testing at her younger daughter’s former daycare facility, where ongoing construction could have exposed lead in the soil.

In November 2019, Superintendent Joris Ray shows reporters one of the water fountains that was shut off at Idlewild Elementary after test results showed high levels of lead. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

She said she hopes the health department’s report will help Memphians understand how widespread the problem is. 

“As a parent and a person of color, I’m of course going to be looking for what is the impact on our students. But also, is this an issue that disproportionately impacts communities of color?” she said.

Nationally, Black children in low-income communities have higher concentrations of lead in their blood than children in white, higher income areas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Test results of Heidi Rupke’s three children all showed some lead in their blood but not high enough for concern. Still, the experience prompted her to pay $3,000 to replace the lead water service pipe to their house.  

She hopes to see the district’s plan to fix the water sources soon. And she wants the district to release all test results from school buildings — whether or not the water source’s lead level reached the state’s threshold. 

“I consider this very much a public safety issue,” she said. “I think updating infrastructure is a great task that we can do to protect our kids for generations.” 

State law now requires all schools to test for harmful metal in water sources such as sinks and water fountains and report results to parents and the Tennessee Department of Health. The law was passed in 2018 and was triggered by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The city was exposed to high levels of lead in drinking water after officials did not treat the water to prevent corrosion of lead pipes. The Flint school district saw a spike in students diagnosed with learning disabilities as a result. 

By the time the pandemic forced school buildings to close in Tennessee in the spring, nearly 150 schools across the state had reported high levels of lead in drinking water, with more on the way.

In all, Shelby County Schools officials shut off 76 water sources with high levels of lead in 39 schools last year. Officials are still researching and forming a plan to remove the lead rather than just shutting off the water sources, a district spokeswoman said. 

LaTricea Adams, who leads the county’s Lead Prevention and Sustainability Commission, said an upcoming report from her group commends the district for its water testing effort, but also urges officials to post all results online for parents. 

She said she hopes the health department’s report on blood tests will spur more collaboration between city and county governments and the city’s utility company. Shelby County Schools, and even homeowners, should get more assistance to reduce lead exposure, she said. 

“Let’s not just patch up issues, but let’s do the real work and real investments to make sure we have pure drinking water,” she said. 

Idlewild parent Sullivan said she hopes the pandemic doesn’t derail plans to address the issue in schools.

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“I just don’t want this to be something that gets so far down the to-do list that it gets lost in the shuffle,” she said.

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