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Lead tests on pupils come back OK

After testing more than 1,300 pupils in 15 elementary schools, Baltimore Health Department officials found that none of them had high enough levels of lead in their blood to cause concern, the city's top health official said yesterday.

Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson said that those results prompted health officials to cancel an earlier plan to test children in all city elementary schools. Beilenson had said in May that the city would test all schoolchildren to determine if years of drinking from possible lead-contaminated drinking fountains had adversely affected them.

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"The results show that this isn't necessary," Beilenson said. "That being said, it is clearly not a good thing to have lead in the [school drinking] water."

A study done in the early 1990s showed many city schools had drinking fountains that were dispensing lead-tainted water. During the most recent school year, it was discovered many of those water fountains were still being used. Students who had blood tests attended schools where the water contained the highest lead levels.

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Last school year, school officials shut off the fountains in all 180-plus schools and installed bottled water coolers from which students can drink.

However, Beilenson said yesterday that wasn't enough.

The Health Department has created an advisory group of parents and school system representatives who will regularly monitor the schools' drinking fountains and sinks to make sure those that should be shut down are not in operation.

The Health Department also will check fountains and sinks during its biannual food inspections in schools.

The department also plans to create an electronic map of all the fountains in all city schools - to be displayed on a Web site - so that parents and concerned residents can see which ones were found to be unsafe.

And, if during further facilities testing, school officials find some water fountains to be safe, Beilenson said his approval will be required before they can be reactivated.

"Using all these strategies, we are quite confident that never again will kids in the school system be exposed to lead in the water fountains," Beilenson said.

Calling student safety "an absolute critical need," Bonnie S. Copeland, the school system's interim chief, said she was "delighted" to hear the results of the blood tests.

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"But until we are certain that there is no danger, we will continue to provide bottled water at all of our schools," she said yesterday.

School officials have budgeted $1.5 million to install a water filtration system in schools, but Copeland said she needs to do more research before deciding if water filtration is the best way to fix the schools' lead problems.

"I can't say that we know that it's the best thing," Copeland said, "so we may be using [that money] for more testing."


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