Cleveland School District’s Current Crisis: High Levels of Lead Found in Water

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[image-1]In a city (and county) already plagued with concerning rates of lead poisoning, the news out of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District last week should prompt urgent action. And while the district is removing hundreds of drinking fountains and faucets and other water sources in the schools flagged with the most alarming lead levels in the water supply, it’s hard to imagine a more tepid response from Patrick Zohn, chief operating officer of the district: “I was neither surprised nor unsurprised. I just knew that we as a district had to find out if there was an issue,” he told WEWS.

Well, there’s an issue.

For the better part of 2015, WCPN and The Plain Dealer performed an admirable job in reporting on the lead crisis of Cuyahoga County. In short, elevated lead levels in aging homes and in the local water supply correspond perfectly with increased poverty, lower IQs (especially among school-age children) and infant mortality (more on that shortly). Data gathered by the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, for instance, showed that some neighborhoods in Cleveland saw major problems occurring simultaneously: 33 percent of children tested positive for “elevated blood lead levels” in neighborhoods where 70 percent of families live at or below the poverty line. The general line for years has been that this is not coincidental.

And so the CMSD had to find out if there was an issue. Months of lead testing this summer in 69 CMSD school buildings led to the latest headlines: Nine percent of the 1,700 water sources tested returned elevated levels of lead.

“If, after the repair, we still test positive, then we’ll go deeper in to seeing what if any piping needs to be replaced,” Zohn told WEWS, referring to the removal of 79 drinking fountains and 40 faucets across the district.

As an example, a water source at Collinwood High School returned a 1,270 parts per billion lead level. The EPA insists testing organizations take action at 15 ppb. (Some water experts and civil engineers have taken issue with that 15-ppb threshold, however, saying that it should be reevaluated and lowered.)

Recall, too, as the CMSD confronts this issue, the backdrop of the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich., and the unsettling flareup in Sebring, Ohio, earlier this year. (The city of Berea is confronting what appears to be a standard-issue water problem accompanying construction in the city, though recent Cleveland 19 News reports have riled up residents and the mayor.) The presence of lead in local water supplies is an extremely costly problem with far-reaching consequences — and it’s not terribly easy to solve. As Zohn told Plain Dealer reporter Brie Zeltner last week: "You didn't need the gift of prescience to know that someone would eventually say here, 'Well, what's the school district doing?'"

It’s currently unclear how much the replacement work will cost. (Water testing is nearing the $400,000 mark and climbing.)

With a look to the future, though, here’s Zeltner with an illustration of what’s to come: “School officials said they do not know how or whether they will monitor these potentially hazardous water sources in the future but will ‘probably’ follow up.” Terrific.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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