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'Full Of It' CPS Officials Tell Parents That Lead Problems Aren't That Bad

By Mae Rice in News on Jun 23, 2016 4:27PM

Chicago Public Schools began testing school water supplies for lead out of an "abundance of caution" in late April—and as of mid-June, actionable levels of lead have been found at 19 of the 74 schools whose test results had been posted publicly. Schools officials are hosting daily community meetings this week to explain those findings and field concerns.

“I think they’re full of it,” CPS parent Anna Espinosa told Chicagoist Wednesday night, after one such community meeting in Back of the Yards.

The “they” Espinosa referred to was a four-man panel well-versed in CPS’s lead testing program. Panelists—including CPS CEO Forrest Claypool and Chicago’s newly-minted Water Commissioner Barrett Murphy—presented to a group of about 40 people in the gym at Back of the Yards College Prep, which was built for at least 500.

Their main message? Lead isn’t a systemic problem in CPS water systems. Lead levels higher than the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s actionable limit, 15 parts per billion, had been found at a quarter of the schools tested so far as of mid-June—but panelist and CPS Chief of Facilities Jose Alfonso de Hoyos-Acosta argued that that overstates the problem. He argued the most relevant numbers were that only about 4 percent of all devices tested (so sinks, water fountains, etc.) produced a sample with actionable lead levels.

Espinosa, 38, wasn’t reassured. She has twin 17-year-old sons currently enrolled at Brighton Park’s Thomas Kelly High School, and one of them was affected by lead long before the city began its testing program. He had “very high” levels of lead in his system at age four, Espinosa said; at age 15, he was diagnosed with autism.

Espinosa doesn’t know if lead exposure caused his autism, or where exactly the lead her son was exposed to came from. The city was supposed to test her family’s apartment at the time for lead, she said, but officials never showed up, and her family moved. Even now, there aren’t yet publicly available lead testing results for Kelly, but “there has to be lead in the building,” Espinosa said. “I know the school is pretty old.”

The school is in a state of disrepair, too, according to Espinosa—it’s in need of a good cleaning, with paint chipping off the ceiling of the school cafeteria and the bathrooms.

Ultimately, the current battery of lead tests just feels like too little, too late to Espinosa. Generations of CPS schoolkids have already gone to schools with lead in the water.

“I just found out that my old school had lead," Espinosa said. "I went to that school, and my parents didn’t know about it… this is like… a generation thing.”

She's not alone in her skepticism of the lead testing program. At the community meeting, audience members were invited to submit questions on notecards; though there was no open confrontation, the questions read aloud by the moderator sounded angry.

"Who will be held accountable?" one question read. Another read, "Why was this meeting not publicized more widely?"

Yet another submission: “I’m not convinced it’s only certain devices. I want water coolers next to the water fountains.”

The responses were, to paraphrase: No one is going to be "held accountable," but we'll definitely try to fix all the lead issues; we did our best to publicize this meeting; our policy is to replace lead-tainted water fountains with water coolers, but... that's it.

Panelist Dr. Cortland Lohff, the Medical Director for Environmental Health at the Chicago Department of Public Health, emphasized that it was much more likely for children to be poisoned by lead paint than by lead in the water at school; Commissioner Murphy emphasized that Flint made mistakes Chicago would never make.

“We will never ever ever ever change source water," Murphy said.

"You didn’t really need to come to guess what they were going to say," Deb Damian, a 22-year-old community organizer, told Chicagoist. "It seemed very bland."

Kimberly Mims, 53, a community organizer and art curator who went to the meeting on behalf of friends with kids in CPS, told Chicagoist the scope of the meeting felt too narrow. "They were really focusing on the device, the fixture, the little problem that they can kind of seize on and shake it around and fix it.”

Testing in schools seems like "not a bad way to start" tackling the lead problem, Mims said, but it strikes her as a "super short-term solution" to what Mims sees as the real issue: Chicago's lead service lines. They're literally everywhere; as we've previously noted, nearly 80 percent of Chicago properties get water from lead service lines.

For her part, Espinosa is taking lead safety one step at a time. After the meeting, she said she plans to take both her sons to get their lead levels tested.

"[I'll] just try to do whatever I can for them," she said.