Local parents concerned with response to lead levels at Mann

BY LUKE VOELZ | JUNE 15, 2011 7:20 AM

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Officials for Terracon, an Iowa City engineering firm, confirmed at Tuesday’s Iowa City School Board meeting that an area of peeling paint in Mann Elementary was larger than 1 square foot during renovations, meaning district officials were required to notify parents and faculty if it contained lead levels above state limits.

That concentration has not been conclusively determined, leaving some Iowa City residents concerned with the School District’s response to hazardous materials.

School District physical-plant employee David Gurwell first tested two sections of the stairwell in April 2010 for lead paint. One sample tested below the Iowa Department of Public Health limit of 0.5 percent lead concentration, and another tested above, at 0.6 percent.

Public Health lead-bureau official Kevin Officer said lead paint isn’t an issue when it is undisturbed or painted over, but it becomes dangerous when it is chipped and in close physical contact.

“Trying to determine whether lead concentration is at 0.5 percent or 1 percent — that’s almost irrelevant because the severity of it is going to depend on how much lead the kid ingested and how long has lead been in the system,” he said.

Terracon senior industrial hygienist Cindy Baldwin said the person who first tested for lead was not a certified lead inspector when the samples were taken, putting the results into question. The state of Iowa adopted the training program in January 2010, while Gurwell’s tests were taken in April, though Gurwell said he was never informed he did not meet qualifications and asked the district for further training.

Board member Mike Cooper said he wants the district to take more definitive action regarding potential hazardous materials.

“The person wasn’t qualified,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it was inaccurate, but that concerns me. This is serious, and doing something in good faith — I appreciate that but that’s not good enough. I don’t want this to happen again, and to me there should be well-documented standard operating procedures about when this happens.”

District Superintendent Steve Murley said the district has hired engineering firm Shive-Hattery to ensure it has proper preventative procedures in place for future hazardous-materials cases. But officials will be unable to determine whether the scraped paint first tested positive for lead, because the area has been repainted.

Younger children are more susceptible to lead paint, Officer said, because of their weaker immune systems and tendency to eat lead paint chips because of their sweet flavor.

Baldwin said she believes the stairwell poses no risk now of exposing children to lead, because the peeling paint has been scraped off and painted over. But when board member Tuyet Dorau asked if kids could have been harmed before renovation, Baldwin said she did not know because she hadn’t seen the walls prior to repair.

“I wasn’t left with a lot of confidence when [Baldwin] was talking,” said City High parent Phil Hemingway. “When they asked her if things were safe in the school, she said, ‘I think so.’ I don’t know about you, but when it’s concerning lead paint and children, that doesn’t instill a lot of confidence. ‘It’s hard for me to say’ is not very definitive, and I think it gives her room enough to do a 360.”

Edwin Stone, who began asking board members and district officials about the lead concentration at Mann in December 2010, said he’s glad the district is taking future preventative steps but isn’t satisfied with how officials handled the initial testing.

“If Mr. Gurwell wasn’t qualified to do the test, but it came back POSITIVE, shouldn’t the district leadership have gotten a qualified person involved at that time to repeat the testing?” he asked Officer in a May 26 e-mail. “Does the image of preschool and elementary children bumping against the wall and flaking off lead-containing paint chips trouble you?”

Stone, one of two Iowa City residents who sued the district for allegedly ignoring his open-records requests, said he shared public concern at some of the Terracon report’s indecisiveness.

“It takes six months for this to even get to level of consciousness where someone will say, ‘I don’t know?’ ” he said. “That’s unbelievably unconcerned.”

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