Guilford schools failed to disclose troubling lead levels for four months

By: - October 12, 2018 9:29 am

For more than four months, the Guilford County school system failed to disclose critical information about high lead levels in three of its schools — not only from the public, but also from the respective principals, according to documents obtained under the Public Records Act.

Hundreds of pages, including email correspondence, show that Greensboro Water Resources also knew of the results, but deferred to the school system in releasing the information. Legally, the utility was not required to notify the public since the source of the contamination was confined to several faucets inside the school buildings.

As Policy Watch and Greensboro media outlets reported in late July, several faucets at Allen Jay Elementary, Frazier Elementary and Southeast Middle tested above the EPA’s action level of 20 parts per billion for lead. (The action level was established as part of the EPA’s sampling protocol for schools; other sampling techniques have lower action levels.)

Concentrations ranged from 19.7 parts per billion at Allen Jay, to 45 ppb at Frazier and 194 ppb at Southeast Middle. All together, the three schools enroll more than 1,500 students, many of them low-income or from communities of color. 

There is no safe level for lead. Children are especially vulnerable to lead contamination because their brains and nervous systems are developing. Chronic exposure can cause irreversible health effects: behavior and learning problems, hyperactivity, cognitive delays, slow growth, hearing problems and anemia.

[easy-tweet tweet=”there should have had been more emphasis on the results”]

Guilford School System Chief of Staff Nora Carr acknowledged there had been a communication breakdown. “The typical protocol is to notify the board, then the senior level administration, principals and supervisors, and then the staff, and ultimately the public,” she said. “In hindsight, the team did a great job upfront in telling parents why and when the testing was going to happen. But there should have had been more emphasis on the results and explaining what we were doing about it.”

Funded by an EPA grant, Greensboro Water Resources and Guilford County Schools conducted a voluntary sampling program of 99 schools and 10 facilities during the last week of February. (Schools on well water are tested regularly.)

The results came back quickly. By March 8, both the utility and the school system had received data indicating the troubling lead levels coming from several sink faucets.

GWR sent the results to state environmental officials, said Michael Borchers, assistant director of the utility’s Division of Water Resources They were shut off, and the utility scheduled additional tests for the following week to determine the source of the contamination, which it attributed to old faucets that contained lead: Frazier’s affected faucet at the cafeteria sink was installed in 1977; Southeast Middle’s lavatory faucet was installed in the early 1970s. And Allen Jay’s dates back to the 1980s.

The faucets were immediately taken out of service and replaced by March 26, according to emails. The next day, utility and school system officials met to discuss the final test results, including those conducted after the new fixtures had been installed, and to review plans for public release of the information.

Borchers acknowledged to Policy Watch that the testing data was complete in March except for confirming results of post-repair testing at two of the three schools. All of the samples had been sent to an outside lab, and utility officials received verbal confirmation in April that no lead had been detected in water coming from the new fixtures.

This was not a written response,” Borchers said. “There was no hard copy of test results to trigger our staff to send an update, even though nothing changed.”

That communication breakdown further stalled the release of the results. In early April, a reporter for the Fox8 television station in High Point contacted Tina Firesheets, Guilford schools’ public information officer, about the results. Firesheets, who left the school system for another job earlier this fall, responded that “staff hasn’t had a chance to review the results.”

Firesheets also attributed the delay in part to spring break, telling the reporter that “it will be at least a couple of weeks” before the results would be released.

A tornado hit east Greensboro 10 days later, forcing officials to concentrate on reassigning students from damaged schools.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Public, principals, school board found out only after the academic year had ended”]

May passed, as did June. And still few people knew there had ever been lead in the three schools’ water. The public, the principals, even the school board found out only after the academic year had ended.

The school board received the results by email in early July, shortly after the utility had summarized “final versions” of the testing data, which were substantively identical to those from March. 

Dianne Bellamy Small, who represents District 1, including Frazier Elementary, referred questions from Policy Watch to the school system. Anita Sharpe of District 2, which includes Allen Jay Elementary, did not respond to questions sent by email.  

Linda Welborn, whose district includes Southeast Middle, told Policy Watch that the board discussed the results in closed session, but did disclose them to the public. “The school system could have been more proactive,” Welborn said. “But they are moving in the right direction. They have a plan to make sure children have clean drinking water.

Clearly frustrated with Guilford Schools, in mid-July Greensboro-area reporters filed a records request with the utility for the test results. In turn, the utility forwarded the request to Firesheets, noting that “after speaking with our attorney and referring to our meeting notes, we think that this request would be best answered by the [school system].”

On July 25, Wanda Mobley, director of communications for Guilford County Schools, asked Chief of Schools Tony Watlington to share the findings with the principals of the three schools, “as the media have inquired about the results.” Watlington forwarded the information within 15 minutes.

As the media, including Policy Watch, began publishing and airing stories, the school system formally notified parents between July 26 and Aug. 8, five months after the school system had received the initial results.


Since the school year started, each weekday morning custodians come in early and flush every faucet for a minute, Carr said, before the kids arrive. “We’re dealing with a lot of unknowns,” she added. “The toxicologists and experts we’ve consulted said this is the best interim approach.”

But concerns about the water fountains were discussed a year ago, according to sampling protocol documents from October 2017. The protocol laid out testing and follow up procedures, noting that utility officials decided not to test fountains and coolers because of time constraints. However, they did recommend that “to fully evaluate the exposure level to lead for students Guilford County Schools should perform an assessment of the drinking water fountains and ice making machines that may be used by students while on facility grounds.”

Many of the district’s schools are more than 50 years old. In some of the buildings, the faucets and water fountains appear to be original, according to an inventory provided by the school system, and predate the Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988. That congressional action directed the EPA to consider drinking water coolers and fountains with lead-lined tanks as “imminently hazardous products, which must be repaired, replaced, recalled or refunded” by their manufacturers and importers by 1990.

The act also directs each state to assist school districts in testing for and eliminating lead contamination from water fountains and other sources, and to make the information public.

Within the Guilford County school system, some of those recalled water fountains, though, were not removed. In early February, Scott McNully, chief operating officer for the school system, did seem concerned about the status of the old water fountains. He asked Director of Maintenance Gerald Greeson if all water fountains had been screened in the 1990s, after the Lead Contamination Control Act had become law. Greeson responded that he was unfamiliar with that mandate, indicating it was “before my time.” Greeson, who joined the district in 1994, said he would check with a colleague.

There is no record of any follow up until mid-August of this year. That’s when the school system began a faucet and fixture inventory. This month, workers have removed and replaced at least nine lined water fountains at several schools, including those that previously had high lead levels in some of their sink faucets.

According to a faucet inventory for the three affected schools, Frazier Elementary had two water fountains (also known as coolers) that were at least 30 years old. Allen Jay Elementary reported three; Southeast Middle listed six.

With the youngest and most vulnerable children, elementary and pre-K schools are being reviewed first, said McNully, followed by middle and high schools, with the age of the buildings also a factor.

The school system plans to hire a firm with expertise in lead testing to ensure all of the buildings’ fixtures — there are thousands — and their water is lead-free. A cost estimate has not been completed.

Carr said the school system’s toxicology and water experts have not advised that it’s necessary for parents to test their children’s blood for lead. However, how long and whether children have been exposed to lead in their drinking water — that is unknown.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.