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Children at 2 Elementary Schools May Have Been Exposed to Lead

Safety: Crews are sent to remove paint chips. The discovery prompts the district to begin devising an inspection program for all campuses.

November 04, 2000|DOUG SMITH | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Los Angeles school officials began drawing up a new health and safety inspection program this week after learning that children at two elementary schools may have been exposed to peeling, lead-based paint.

Environmental crews were dispatched to remove hazardous paint chips at Avalon Gardens School in South Los Angeles and Catskill Elementary School in Carson. The work was expected to continue through this weekend.

District officials said they considered the potential for exposure low and they would consult state and county health officials before deciding whether the exposure could have been great enough to require testing of students for lead poisoning.

"I do not anticipate that," said Angelo Bellomo, director of the Los Angeles Unified School District's environmental health and safety branch.

Lead poisoning has been linked to neurological and behavioral problems, reduced IQ and tooth decay, and is particularly harmful to the developing bodies of young children.

Lead-based paint has long been outlawed in California but is still present in older buildings, including thousands of schools. In a 1998 study, the California Department of Health Services estimated that nearly 78% of the state's public elementary schools contain potentially hazardous lead paint. Of 200 schools randomly inspected, about 38% had paint in deteriorating condition.

Lead poses a hazard when flakes fall into areas that are accessible to young children who might eat the flakes or grind them with their feet into dust that can become airborne. Small children are considered most vulnerable because of their propensity to crawl on hands and knees and put things into their mouths.

Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer said the discovery of a lead hazard at Avalon Gardens and Catskill persuaded him of the need for comprehensive health inspections at all schools.

"We need to get this systemized so we don't miss it," Romer said. "We need to be more diligent."

The program will begin with a survey to identify other schools with flaking, lead-based paint. Those hazards would then be removed in order of urgency.

In the long term, the district will develop a comprehensive health and safety inspection form and require an inspection of each school annually for any potential hazard, from asbestos to dangerous equipment that is accessible to children.

The completed forms would be kept on file at each school and made available to parents.

"Parents should be informed about any conditions in the school," Bellomo said.

Currently, Bellomo said, most health and safety inspections occur only after complaints are received by the environmental health and safety branch.

The potential exposure was brought to the attention of school officials by a CBS reporter who was researching a story on lead hazards in schools.

The reporter showed a video clip from that story, set to air at 11 p.m. Sunday on KCBS Channel 2, Bellomo said. It showed children playing in areas where paint was flaking off windows and overhangs.

"There were clearly conditions that shouldn't exist in schools where we know there is a lead-based paint potential," Bellomo said.

The disclosure added to a string of environmental lapses in the district over the last year, starting with the closing of Palisades Charter High School last year after construction debris containing asbestos was discovered in several classrooms.

A subsequent asbestos survey led to the temporary or partial closings of seven other schools. In April, the district closed 17 classrooms at Walter Reed Middle School after discovering lead contamination also caused by construction.

These incidents "tell us that there has been a generalized breakdown in the procedures that should be in place to prevent these kinds of conditions," Bellomo said.

He said he also plans to draft proposed legislation that would make such inspections mandatory at all schools in the state.

"It's a no-brainer," Bellomo said. "We conduct periodic inspections of restaurants and housing units. Schools are no less in need of that kind of routine monitoring and follow-up."

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