At the southeastern edge of Cumberland County, Beaver Dam Elementary School is grappling with an issue faced by old school buildings across the country: hazardous levels of lead paint and dust.
Cumberland County Schools first announced the presence of lead paint at Beaver Dam on June 12, after the Cumberland County Department of Public Health detected elevated levels of lead during an annual inspection of the school. A statement made at the time advised parents to be aware that lead levels at the school were “higher than acceptable levels set forth in the North Carolina General Statutes.”
Six months later, CCS is still monitoring lead exposure at the school.
In a statement on Dec. 1, CCS said the parents of “fewer than 15 children,” who are under 6 and receiving in-person instruction at the school in the last six months, have been notified of the hazardous lead exposure.
“Based on Health Department guidelines, we are actively monitoring the paint at Beaver Dam to ensure it stays intact,” CCS told CityView Thursday. “We have remediated the areas of concern; however, due to the age of the school, monitoring is ongoing annually.”
The building is among several in the school district that have had elevated lead levels in recent years. Exposure in schools is detected by finding lead in water and seeing lead paint, a common fixture in old buildings. Buildings constructed prior to 1978 are more likely to have lead-based paint; that year, the federal government banned lead-based paint in residential uses.
Beaver Dam celebrated its 100th birthday last year, and has had three major additions since it was built in 1922, with add-ons in 1960, 1999 and 2001.
“Basically anytime you have a property or house or structure that's built prior to 1978, there's bound to be some sort of lead-paint hazard,” said Daniel Ortiz, the county’s Public Health Department environmental health director who worked on the lead investigation at the school.
Ortiz said the health department alerts the state for lead testing if inspectors see signs such as paint chips, peeling paint or flaking during a normal inspection — in Beaver Dam’s case, “elevated lead levels” had been found during the annual inspection.
Dangers of lead exposure
CityView reported in June that Beaver Dam’s lead detection is the third instance of lead found in Cumberland County school buildings in the past two years. The school had levels of 130 micrograms of lead dust per square foot and 2.3% concentration in the paint. This is higher than the state’s mandate that lead dust levels cannot exceed 10 micrograms per square foot and 0.5% paint concentration in any building regularly used by children under age 6 that was built before 1978.
According to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-131.7, lead concentrations above this level constitute a “lead poisoning hazard.” North Carolina schools are required to “restrict access” when a hazard is identified, an intentionally open-ended policy that includes, but is not limited to, physically restricting access to the hazard, encapsulating or covering the lead, performing remediation or abatement of the hazard. (CCS has chosen remediation and encapsulation.)
Lead exposure at any age is harmful, but exposure in children under 6 is especially concerning because their bodies and brains are developing rapidly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The health consequences of lead exposure during these early years are profound and multifaceted, impacting brain and nervous system development, behavior, hearing, speech, focus, and reducing intellectual capacity, ultimately leading to poor academic performance.
Ortiz said the paint at Beaver Dam was mostly on exterior surfaces that have minimal health hazards.
“It's a minimal hazard, but this hazard is still there, so we're going to make sure the parents are aware,” Ortiz said.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, lead paint on doors, windows, and windowsills can be a hazard because of the frequent motion involved in opening and closing them, which releases lead dust. Lead paint on exterior surfaces can also contaminate soil, yards and playgrounds if it flakes or peels and gets into the soil, the EPA states.
CCS directed CityView’s specific inquiries on the lead exposure to Jennifer Green, the county’s health director, as the “official spokesperson for this situation.” Green has not responded to multiple CityView requests seeking comment.
CityView was able to photograph exterior windows of the school on Wednesday, which had the typical “alligator” pattern of lead paint and appeared to be intact.
Blood testing for lead
The Dec. 1 press release sent out by CCS was titled, “Removal of Lead at Beaver Dam Elementary Ongoing.” While the lead hazard has started to be rectified, the school district said, the lead has not been removed or abated, a process which ensures permanent elimination. The school district told CityView that it had remediated the lead hazard at the school, which involved ensuring paint — such as from doors and windows — does not peel and shed lead dust. The “removal” in the press release title was regarding the hazard, not the lead itself, according to the CCS’s Auxiliary Services Division.
“Staff in our Environmental Health Division continue to work closely with Cumberland County Schools to remove the lead hazard,” Auxiliary Services staff said in response to CityView’s request seeking clarification on its removal Friday.
This work does not necessarily mean removing lead-based paint, said Lindsay Whitley, the associate superintendent of communications and community engagement in an add-on to the statement.
“We use measures to remove the hazard, such as reducing friction points, keeping the paint in good condition — preventing it from chipping, etc., limiting access to the hazards from children under the age of six, close monitoring, changing out sinks, etc,” Whitley said.
Ortiz said it was up to the school district to decide whether to proceed with the health department’s recommendations in lead cases. He did not specify what the department’s exact recommendations were or what had been done in this case.
“There's some sort of plan of abatement or a cover where they seal it or repaint it, and that's up to the schools,” Ortiz said. “But there have not been any elevated blood lead levels in any children under the age of five, so we can't require it. We make those recommendations to the school system and then they act on it.”
Oritz said the health department offers free lead testing to children but “it's going to be up to the parents if they want to come and have their children tested.”
As of early this week, Ortiz said he “didn’t know yet” if any of the students had been tested and was not aware of any students with elevated lead blood levels. In the district’s latest news release on Dec. 1, CCS said that no student is known to have blood lead levels above the state-established level requiring follow-up care.
The CDC lead prevention website states that blood testing is the “best way to find out if a child has lead poisoning,” as visible signs are hard to detect because children who have lead poisoning often appear healthy. In addition, the CDC has stated that, among children, there is no safe level of lead in blood, and even low levels “should be viewed as a concern.”
Ortiz advises people, particularly with children under the age of 5, “to be aware of peeling paint, that lead paint is still out there, especially in homes or structures prior to 1978.”
The health department is providing free blood tests for any Beaver Dam student who attended in-person classes in the past six months. Testing is available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Public Health Department, 1235 Ramsey St. Walk-ins are accepted.
Contact Evey Weisblat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 216-527-3608.