St. Louis schools want to remove lead from 25 elementaries

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis school district said it wants to reduce potential lead paint hazards at 25 elementary schools before the start of the next school year, welcome news for families concerned about their children's school environment.

School Board chief executive officer Rick Sullivan said Monday the board last week approved about $5.4 million to abate the lead, with work to begin in May or June and be completed by August. The district has not yet identified a funding source. It hopes to be able to use economic stimulus money for the work.

"That's the objective -- to remove the concern for everyone and to be sure their child attends an elementary school where the lead is abated," he said.

Many of St. Louis' school buildings were built long before a 1978 ban on lead paint that was based on studies showing exposure could cause reduced intelligence and brain damage in children.

A group of worried parents and community activists worked to get their concerns about possible lead problems back on the public's radar last year. The YMCA of Greater St. Louis said it could not accept preschool-aged children into a before- and after-school care program at one school after a state inspection showed lead. That got some wondering if it was OK for their kids to be there during the school day.

Children younger than 6 are particularly at risk for harmful health effects from peeling lead-based paint, which they may ingest through lead dust or paint chips. Because their brains and nervous systems are still developing, too much lead exposure can lead to learning disabilities, and behavioral and physical problems.

One father of two elementary-school students who has been vocal on the issue, Darren O'Brien, said, "It's great to hear they're working on it. That's the kind of ambition I want to see, if they can accomplish it."

The St. Louis public schools currently have an appointed, three-member board trying to improve the long-troubled city schools.

In recent months, much of the focus has been on a plan to close 17 city schools -- 14 of them before the next school year -- in hopes of improving efficiency, cutting costs and ultimately helping the district improve academically.

St. Louis public schools spokesman Patrick Wallace said 28 elementary schools had been on the district's list for lead abatement and window replacement. But three of them are slated to close under the new district plan, cutting the number in need of abatement to 25.

Friction points, or places that generate lead dust like the opening of a window frame covered in the paint, especially need to be addressed in lead abatement projects.

Lead poisoning in St. Louis children has dropped dramatically from about 16 percent of children tested in 2001 to about 4 percent in 2008. The city's effort has largely focused on work to make homes safer.

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