Thursday, May 15, 2003

Few Heberle pupils test high for lead

By Tim Bonfield and Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

After testing more than 200 students, Cincinnati health officials say it appears that lead paint hazards at Heberle Elementary School in the West End did not cause widespread contamination.

Of 233 students tested since April 28, seven had elevated blood-lead levels, according to results released Wednesday by the Cincinnati Health Department.

Of those seven students, six were previously identified by the public health system as having elevated lead in their blood. Of those six, five had lower levels than previous tests and one was considered unchanged.

In addition, health officials say the child whose blood test triggered an inspection that found widespread lead hazards at Heberle also had lead poisoning from earlier in life.

"Hopefully, parents will be reassured by this information," said Dr. Judith Daniels, medical director for the Cincinnati Health Department. "Based on our preliminary review, the data indicates that the bulk of the children tested had very low levels of lead even though their environment was very lead-burdened."

Parents will be sent letters in the next few days along with information about what to do about their child's results. The results reflect data collected through Thursday, and are not considered complete because a few more children might still be tested, Daniels said.

West End resident Vandia Barker has five children at Heberle, four of whom have been tested and one who has yet to be tested. She said she was pleased with the health department's report.

"I thought it would be a whole lot higher," she said. "I was concerned about my children. They were spending a great deal of time at Heberle - not only going to school there but in the after-school programs they had there as well."

The student blood tests were conducted because a health department inspection in March found numerous lead hazards at the 74-year-old school.

After the inspection results were announced last month, more than 500 students were transferred to the vacant Porter school to finish the year. Families also were offered free testing for their children.

At high levels, lead exposure can cause significant brain damage, even death. At low levels, lead can affect IQ, stunt growth, damage hearing, and trigger behavior problems. Children under 6 are most at risk.

The federal regulatory definition of childhood lead poisoning starts at 10 micrograms per deciliter. However, medical treatment for lead poisoning isn't recommended unless a child has a level of 15 or higher.

In Cincinnati, property inspections - and repair orders that can follow - are triggered once a child is found to have a level of 15, Daniels said.

Of the seven students with elevated levels, the results were 10, 10.8, 11, 11.2, 13, 14.6 and 19 micrograms per deciliter.

Finding elevated lead levels in 3 percent of those tested at Heberle is lower than average for Hamilton County. In 2001, 6.6 percent of children tested had elevated levels, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

For Heberle students, only one of the seven with elevated levels is likely to get a follow-up call from a public health nurse to ask more about the possible causes of the lead poisoning. And because that child was already known to the health system, it was not clear whether the city would conduct further home inspections, Daniels said.

The rest will get general information and tips about preventing lead poisoning.

While test results may reassure families, they do not change a legal requirement to repair hazards at Heberle school, nor do they change district plans to inspect 22 other older schools for lead paint hazards.

So far, all 23 older schools have been cleaned with specially filtered vacuums, said Janet Walsh, district spokeswoman.

The district is still working with the health department to develop a lead-abatement plan for Heberle.

"It has been our hope to get all of the work done over the summer so the students can return to Heberle," Walsh said.

For the other schools, inspections and testing of dust samples will begin this summer. The district hopes any repairs that may be required will be complete before the beginning of the school year, she said.

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