Parents opt for lead testing

Frustration expressed that solution not found sooner

Posted: Friday, November 03, 2000

The children were not happy. Some held their heads high, while others dissolved in tears.

With parents, nurses, teachers and school volunteers, the children gathered Thursday in the library at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School, lining up to have their blood tested for possible lead poisoning. The state offered parents the option of free testing for the children after the Soldotna school's water supply flunked federal water quality tests.

"I'm very concerned," said mother Charity Cook.

"The safety of my children is most important. That they have to go through this when it could have been prevented disturbs me."

Her daughter, first-grader Paris Silba, wept in her mother's arms.

"I don't want to go," the girl sobbed.

However, her brother, third-grader Josh Silba, saw the situation as an opportunity to display bravery.

His teacher had advised the students to relax and not let their minds trick them into anxiety, he said.

"Do you think I'm going to be tough enough?" he asked.

Cook said she had tried to discuss the matter with her children.

"I don't think they really comprehend the problem," she said. "My son did say he didn't want to get sick."

While the children dreaded the nurse in the back room with the needle, their parents were more concerned about the lead. They volunteered their children for the testing, despite assurances from state, borough and school officials that their children are safe.

Cook said she intends to learn more about lead exposure. Her questions about the dangers and the tests have not all been answered, she said.

She said she was surprised the water problem had not been identified and dealt with before classes began in the fall.

The lead dissolves into water by leaching from corroding pipes.

April water samples at the school found an average of 0.816 milligrams of lead per liter of water, drawn from a tap first thing in the morning after sitting stagnant in the pipes all night. The "action level" set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency is 0.015 milligrams per liter.

The school had a program in place for custodians to flush the pipes every morning so students would get cleaner water.

After the April test, no new action was taken, and the school and parents did not learn the results until September. At that time, the school sent home a note explaining that bottled water was replacing tap water for drinking.

The borough installed a new water treatment system at the beginning of October and will keep the school on bottled water for at least the rest of this school year. Chemical additives from the treatment are supposed to coat the inside of pipes to prevent corrosion and metal leaching.

Dr. Michael Beller, a medical epidemiologist with the state, attended a meeting for concerned parents at the school Oct. 19. At the time he said that because parents were concerned, the state would provide the free testing.

He returned to Soldotna Thursday to assist with the blood tests.

Beller sent parents a note including two bulletins from the state Division of Public Health detailing two previous incidents of schools with exposure to lead in water.

In 1994, school water from the south peninsula village of Port Graham yielded 0.77 milligrams per liter. Students at Port Graham and later at a school in Anchorage were tested for lead. Results showed that the exposed students not only had no sign of lead poisoning, but had less lead in their blood than the average amount for children in other states, according to the bulletins.

Thursday, the Soldotna parents awaiting the blood draws expressed frustration that previous attempts to fix the school's water had failed and that children had been exposed again despite problems with the K-Beach water dating back to 1993.

"They said the problem was fixed. Suddenly it's a problem again," said Doris Gattenby.

"With today's technology, why couldn't they have found this out before?"

Most parents she had spoken with had signed up for the testing, and they worried about older children, who had been at K-Beach in years past, she said.

Her daughter, fifth-grader Chelsea Kime, said all her friends were getting tested, and they didn't like it.

Gattenby said she had had her home water tested, and it had been safe.

She and others expressed skepticism about the state tests and interest in second opinions, even if the blood tests come back negative.

"I'll probably still have her tested later on," Gattenby said.

The count of how many families took advantage of the free testing was unavailable at press time Thursday.

Results of the blood tests will be available in two to three weeks and will be mailed directly to parents. The school will receive a summary report without names.

While parents anxiously await the results, some are clear about at least one thing.

Said Kyndra Byford, another mother waiting for the nurse, "My kids won't be drinking water here anymore."

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