January 1 — 10:48 pm, 2005

Lead’s challenges leaching into education reform

The patterns of red, green, yellow, and orange that colored a map of zip code areas in Philadelphia looked familiar to F. Joseph Merlino, glancing at the image tacked on an office wall. Drawing from his knowledge as project director for the Mathematics and Science Partnership of Greater Philadelphia, Merlino concluded the map plotted PSSA scores by neighborhood.

He was wrong. It showed the rate at which children had tested for elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream.

“Holy cow,” Merlino recalls exhaling, as the immediate similarities in the rates began to sink in.

Wondering if an actual correlation existed, Merlino plotted the data on an area’s blood lead level and its elementary school test scores. His assistant came back with data showing that with each 10 percentage-point increase in micrograms of lead per 100 millimeters of blood, test scores also declined, finally producing a steadily downward sloping line graph.

Since that informal discovery a year ago, Merlino has joined a trickle of voices that have begun to question — with lead poisoning generally viewed as a public health issue, shouldn’t its persistence now be viewed as a critical issue for educators?

More questions than answers

Years have passed since the dangers of lead seized headlines and sparked widespread concern for children living, breathing, and drinking in Philadelphia’s mass of older building structures. Any built before 1978 commonly bore coats of lead-based paint, which the government finally outlawed in 1978.

But now that paint is cracking and peeling, with its remaining dust particles and chips particularly dangerous to children under age three, who may inhale or swallow it in the course of everyday activity.

Lead is a neurotoxin. Absorbed at high levels, it can cause death. Even low levels of exposure have been blamed for lowered IQs, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and behavioral problems. Twenty micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood constitutes lead poisoning. However even 10 micrograms have been found to have harmful effects on a child.

Having responded over the years with an aggressive outreach and testing campaign, Philadelphia has lowered the number of children aged five and younger who were tested and found to have elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream, from 1 in 6, in 2000, to fewer than 1 in 10 today, according to the city’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program figures. But besides the concern for that 10 percent who still test positive, what has happened with the children who were previously exposed?

An alarmed Merlino set up meetings and shared his informal studies with Philadelphia Schools CEO Paul Vallas and the city health commissioner. He contacted daily newspaper reporters. Merlino says none have yet to demonstrate any real interest in addressing his findings.

Merlino writes in an e-mail, “I think the toxic environment/education connection needs to be comprehensively studied and adequately funded and given the high political profile it deserves.” He argues that Philadelphia, rich in environmental and biomedical expertise, is in an ideal position to study the topic and produce evidence that might finally justify to weary politicians and others the costs of genuine remediation.

Richard Tobin, director for the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, says, “We have had some discussions about the School District running a much more exacting study to look at the effects.” Other considerations include ways to integrate lead poisoning awareness into the school curriculum, and production of such multimedia educational materials as DVDs.

He also says of Merlino’s argument for a comprehensive study, “This concept has been around for some time.”

But Merlino is not the only one frustrated that Philadelphia is not doing more to connect lead and learning issues.

Focus on Philadelphia

The Arizona School Boards Education Association carries the report, “A Strange Ignorance: The Role of Lead Poisoning In ‘Failing Schools,’ ” on its website. A chapter called “The Philadelphia Experiment,” questions why The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2000, in one issue, covered lead poisoning’s hazards and effects on children’s behavior, but in another issue, the reporter omitted the possible effects of lead in a story on the School District’s exploration of special disciplinary schools for disruptive students.

“Educators and politicians alike ignore the fact that the overwhelming prevalence of lead poisoning in Philadelphia’s ‘well baby’ clinics documented in 1992 has to have some consequences 10 years later in Philadelphia’s schools,” the report stated.

An article in a newsletter distributed by “Voices for America’s Children,” formerly National Association of Child Advocates, placed the number of Philadelphia children screened in 1993 that had elevated blood lead levels at 43 percent. It is reasonable to expect that among children enrolled in Philadelphia’s public schools the rates were even higher.

In 1996, renowned University of Pittsburgh researcher Herbert Needleman discovered that, “controlling for race and socioeconomic class, mean lead levels in delinquents were significantly higher,” according to a profile on the researcher who, as a University of Pennsylvania medical student, lived in what he termed the ‘lead belt’ of Philadelphia, North Philadelphia.

“Students, Toxins and Environmental Racism,” the cover story of the winter 2003 issue of Rethinking Schools magazine, noted that for every four- or five-point decrease in IQ among children in the same population, may increase by 50 percent the number of children who qualify for special education. Higher levels of lead can result in an average of five or six fewer IQ points.

Such evidence, Rethinking Schools writer Eric Ness says, raises the question, “How can politicians – including the Bush administration, which claims to care enough about the structure and performance of public education to dramatically rewrite education policy – ignore so much science that speaks to the very question of why some children can’t learn?”

A role for educators?

A lead poisoning/education connection is hardly new territory for Tobin, at the Department of Public Health. “In some areas where you work, 90 percent of kids in 1991 were exposed to lead,” he says. “So you’re going to have some effect from it. To me it seems obvious. But people in the school system look at test scores and not at IQs.”

Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth is a long-time Philadelphia champion on issues of lead poisoning. Health Care Projects Manager Colleen McCauley-Brown says further investigation of lead poisoning’s impact would produce a ripe opportunity from which Philadelphia could draw “all kinds of different lessons out, about city planning, community development, you name it.” But in terms of integrating prevention activities it into the educational process, she says, “There are really great tools out there already, even for little kids – rhymes, chants, songs, activities. To integrate them into schools could perhaps be simple. But it wouldn’t have to be reinvented.”

Nationally, Milwaukee teacher Patti Peplinski, who has written a K-12 curriculum on lead poisoning prevention, advocates that such prevention lessons become as common in classrooms as discussion of fire prevention tips. “It’s common knowledge now to stop, drop, and roll,” she told Rethinking Schools’ Ness. “I want lead poisoning prevention to be the same way.”

School District spokeswoman Barbara Farley says the School District currently integrates into its curriculum everything from lead prevention steps for younger children and their older siblings, to environmental issues covered in the scope and sequence of its health curriculum. It partners with the city on grants that provide for lead awareness, abatement, and lead testing, and the two distribute a pamphlet on lead poisoning prevention.

Five years ago, the District reportedly spent $1.35 million, mostly in work hours, addressing another source of lead contamination – performing the cumbersome task of engineers’ “flushing” water lines each morning. Studies had shown that water outlets in 20 percent of nearly 300 of the Philadelphia School District’s older school buildings had unsafe lead levels.

“Our remediation program is essentially completed,” Farley said of that effort. However a spokesman for the EPA, Mid-Atlantic Region, said that while the School District had “basically completed the majority of the plumbing work,” such as replacing faucets and valves, “there’s still post remediation work” to be done. That largely entails testing.

“We won’t really consider the thing closed until the Philadelphia Health Department signs off on it,” spokesman Roy Seneca said.

So while measures to address lead poisoning’s dangers wouldn’t have to be invented, do schools need to rethink their perspective on lead’s impact?

The Arizona School Boards Association argues that schools have little choice: “School district governing board members have to face the overwhelming evidence that all children cannot learn if they have been lead poisoned, and thus if accountability for learning penalizes schools for not teaching children who have been poisoned, then schools have no alternative other than to take action against the poisoning.

“No amount of ‘best practices’ or educational fads or intensive instruction is going to make neurological connections between brain cells constructed of lead,” it stated.

Merlino insists of Philadelphia, “You’re spending $1.8 billion for education, trying to raise PSSA scores. Well, part of the problem might be something more systemic and organic that causes a systemic affect.”

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