School lead testing bill moves out of Council committee unanimously
Although blood lead levels among Philadelphia’s children have declined in recent years, that decline has not kept up with national trends. In fact, the percentage of the city’s children with elevated lead levels is “nearly twice what Flint, Michigan, experienced during the height of their water crisis,” according to Marilyn Howarth, an expert in environmental toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania, who testified before a City Council committee today.
Over 6 percent of the city’s children have elevated blood levels, more than double the national rate. At the current rate, about 2,400 children in Philadelphia are diagnosed with elevated lead blood levels each year.
Howarth, a physician and the director of community engagement for Penn’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, testified before City Council’s committee on licenses and inspections during a public hearing on a series of bills that would strengthen environmental and safety regulations in the city’s building codes. Two of the bills apply to schools.
One requires annual inspections for exposed lead paint in all schools built before 1978, when lead paint was banned in the United States. The bill passed out of committee unanimously with a recommendation for Council to approve it.
The other bill would have required inspections for mold and asbestos every five years, but that was tabled and so will remain in committee.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently reduced the level of lead particles in dust considered safe for schools to 10 micrograms per square foot. The Philadelphia Healthy Schools Initiative, a coalition of parents, nonprofits and labor unions, reported finding as much as 1,400 micrograms per square foot in school buildings.
“The exposure to children is real. It is substantial,” Howarth said. “We believe that it is robbing children — stealing their IQ and cognitive function – and we believe that every child has the right to full cognitive development.
“The proposed legislation would begin the process of reducing lead exposure to children in school.”
Howarth is an adviser to the Philadelphia Healthy Schools Initiative, which has been pushing these bills for more than a year. After the coalition found problems with the School District’s initial lead paint stabilization program, members pushed for a lead advisory group to work alongside the administration and advocated for regular communications with parents, transparency of testing results, and stricter work standards.
Danielle Floyd, chief operating officer for the District, testified that working with the advisory group was valuable in creating “best practices” for environmental remediation that she hopes will become a model for other school districts. Those practices include regular communications with staff and parents, stricter testing protocols, and more rigorous cleaning standards during work conducted inside schools and afterward. She thanked members of the initiative “for their time, and their work, and their passion.”
“What we learned in our advisory group is we don’t know the full totality of the risk until all of our schools have been assessed,” Floyd said.
The District has more than 200 schools built before 1978, she said, so the lead assessments will take 12-18 months and cost $5,000 each. She said the most important thing she learned from the advisory group was that the District could better communicate with parents and staff in advance. Now in every building where lead paint stabilization is conducted, the principal, building representative, and parents all receive weekly email updates about the work.
“This presents an opportunity for us to build on the program we’ve established,” Floyd said. “But there are future opportunities and more lessons to be learned.”
Colleen Bowen, principal of Clara Barton Elementary School, testified about her positive experience with the lead remediation work in her school. Last summer, Barton was one of the schools remediated under the new protocols developed by the District and the Healthy Schools Initiative.
“The School District liaison was in communication with me right from the beginning and heard my concerns about the timeline for starting school,” Bowen said. In the end, they were able to get the work done before school started.
Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who chairs the committee, asked Bowen what could be done to improve the process.
“I would like more proactive movement with the work orders — forgive me,” she said, turning to Floyd, who laughed and nodded in agreement. Work orders are repairs that cannot be made by the building engineers who work in the schools, so they are submitted to the District to be completed by building specialists. But the District’s operating budget can’t handle the number of work orders produced annually. The result is the $4.5 billion deferred maintenance list, which is essentially a backlog of unfilled work orders.
“When [Floyd and her staff] moved through our building, they were able to get things fixed quickly because the head people were walking through,” Bowen said. “But you should be able to get things fixed not because you know somebody — you should be able to get things fixed because they need to be fixed.”
Floyd agreed with Bowen. “We should have a set of expectations throughout the organization in terms of what we prioritize getting done in schools,” Floyd said.
She explained that the District has a modernized digital work order database that will eventually expand to include environmental data and safety certifications for things like elevators and boilers.
At the upcoming meeting of the school board’s facilities and finance committee on Thursday, Floyd’s office will propose hiring 36 additional cleaners for “schools with the highest need,” 14 custodial assistants to help building engineers in schools, and 12 more to establish a roaming crew to visit the schools that have the biggest backlogs of work.
Laurie Mazer, a parent at Jackson Elementary who is on the leadership team of the Healthy Schools Initiative and a member of Parents United, got involved with the initiative when she and other parents discovered poorly done lead remediation at Jackson. This led to the establishment of the advisory group on lead stabilization.
“We have not done enough to adequately maintain our oldest buildings, which leads to flaking paint and other environmental health risks from water intrusion,” Mazer said. “While chipping, flaking paint may have been abated at my school of Jackson Elementary, major work remains to be done. Most importantly to address the number of other schools in Philadelphia that suffer from similar or worse conditions.”
Mazer said the District should be “fixing the root cause issues,” such as water intrusion, and “staffing our schools with enough custodial staff.”
“This is critical in order to keep any dust and paint chips away from our students to protect them from the incredibly harmful effects of lead exposure while schools await abatement work,” she said.
Jerry Roseman, director of environmental science and occupational safety and health for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, agreed that a top priority should be regularly cleaning any dust from exposed flaking paint. He applauded the District’s new cleaning protocols and its purchase of vacuum cleaners designed to handle lead dust, among other contaminants.
Roseman said the advisory group should serve as a “model” for other environmental hazards as well, such as mold and asbestos.
Councilman Mark Squilla thanked the Healthy Schools Initiative.
“Your advocacy and passion for this are some of the reasons why this bill is on the table today.”