Getting the Lead Out of Schools


New Orleans       Increasingly, we are going to ask which school district is going to be the last one to stand up for its children and workers and test for lead.  There really is no rational reason in the face of the devastation that lead brings to children and others and the overwhelming evidence of its ubiquitously destructive impact in schools, and for that matter, other public buildings, for any steward of public trust and responsibility not to assure communities that they are protecting the safety of families and workers.

            After our success in Houston in winning testing for lead in all the districts’ water fountains and other water sources, and what seemed to be the quick agreement in New Orleans to move in the same direction, we have been heartened.  Attention is growing as well.  PBS is coming to New Orleans to film ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice and LSU Health Science Center’s testing program in both the schools and adjoining neighborhoods.  A lead education program that is embedded in the ACV housing education classes is also going to be filmed and featured.   Three New Orleans schools have already been tested for the impact of lead on both the soil and water sources.  The PBS angle focuses on the way in which science is being used as a tool for change in the communities, which seems spot on in this fight.

Local 100 United Labor Unions was somewhat surprised that Dallas continued to drag its heels in responding to us on this issue.  With fall and the return of classes, a meeting with a school board member and resumption of school board meetings as well as an emerging coalition of various groups united in their call for such testing, found a positive response finally.  Not only are they going to do the testing, but the Dallas Independent School District also finally agreed with our position to test retirees that had been exposed to lead and other chemicals in the warehouses.

            Dallas had little choice as well because they were beginning to seem a pariah in the metroplex.  Fort Worth had already not only agreed to test all of its water fountains, but having found evidence of lead already in several of them, has moved to replace them.  Arlington, half-way between Dallas and Fort Worth, has also announced a testing program as well.  Other school districts in the Houston area, including neighboring suburban districts of Alief and Cypress-Fairbanks are also moving forward on a testing plan now.   In Texas, districts are beginning to fall in line, but although Local 100’s representative in Arkansas reported some success in lining up allies among teacher groups to push for testing in Little Rock and Pulaski County, both districts are still lagging, even as so many of the trains have pulled out of the station on this issue.

            Other public buildings where we clean, as well as state and public facilities where our members work, are high on our list as well.  The simple rule of thumb should be that wherever there is a public water fountain, there needs to be a lead test. 

How hard is that to get done?


Professor Lead-Head: A Zealot? No Way!

Dr. Marc Edwards and doctoral student William Rhoads (left) examine pipes in a home in Flint, Michigan.

Dr. Marc Edwards and doctoral student William Rhoads (left) examine pipes in a home in Flint, Michigan.

Little Rock   I should just start with some disclosures. For years my ears have been inches away from a thousand conference calls, shouts of outrage at newspaper articles, and screams at television sets for the level of ignorance and ignoring of the dangers of lead pretty much on land, sea, and air all around us. Enough so that a favored Christmas gift to our family several years ago was a water filtration system for our house. We would constantly joke about “lead heads.” I hope I’m making myself clear.

Mostly, I learned to nod at the right times, slow down if we ever happened to drive by a home rehab site that was using open air sanding, and highlight any articles in the paper or elsewhere when I stumbled over them, but gradually like lead itself, all of this began to sink in more and more clearly. Recently, as I have reported on radio and in these reports, we have been pushing schools with ACORN’s affiliates and with Local 100 United Labor Unions to test for lead in water, using the crisis in Flint, Newark, and other cities to put wind in our sails so that victory has seemed both imminent and inevitable.

When I saw there was a feature in the Sunday New York Times Magazine involving one of the heroes of the lead-safe movement, Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, I put it on the stack to read in full, knowing it was important, and that I would probably be quizzed about it later. I asked my companera, “What does the title mean, ‘The Zealot? Are they knocking your guy?” She answered, she wasn’t sure, might be the other guy in the article?

Well, I got around to reading the piece finally, and, I’m sure, they were body slamming Professor Edwards with that headline, though I understand the confusion. The reporter, Donovan Hohn, casts these aspersions widely using more inference than evidence. We are sidetracked around the fact that he is a Republican and a libertarian. The reporter tries to introduce a false paradox about whether a scientist can also be an advocate, even a Cassandra. Those seemed like low-blows. Republicans can like drinking clean water, just as there were Republicans who were consumer advocates and who vote for environmental issues. Libertarians don’t trust government. On that there is almost universal consensus across the political spectrum, and, frankly, we need more scientists who are loud and clear advocates given the threats we face, especially ones that are willing to speak truth to power.

The reporter does score some points arguing that it would be nice if Edwards built more capacity for local fights and used himself more as a nail in these controversies and was less like a hammer. That’s a point a community and labor organizer like me would make. If reporters for the Times are going to start leveling the playing field and join those of us in the “let’s build power for the people” program, they are going to have to lobby to add a few more pages to every day’s paper, because they would have to rewrite half of their articles about politicians, artists, movie stars, and every story where they focus is on the individual, rather than the collective, the “hero,” rather than the community, the big “I’s” rather the huge “We’s.” I’m ready, but until they change their standard, it seems like they are rough handling Professor Edwards.

Our experience with Edwards has been the opposite of this story. In the fight in Houston, we have reached out to him several times. He knows we are union, it’s clear from the email address to the questions, and he has been immediately accessible, totally responsive, and completely helpful. In New Orleans when A Community Voice pushed the issue, he gave them instant credibility in moving school board members to contact him, and he has been totally responsive in that situation as well. He has asked for no credit, hogged no press, and been totally supportive in each and every instance.

I could call out people and name names of scores of similar professors and big whoops where you can’t even get a response to an email, much less real help of any kind.

Zealot? If fighting for clean water and justice makes you a zealot, well, we’re charter members of that group, and we’re recruiting every day for more folks to join our ranks. Welcome aboard, Professor Edwards! Hopefully in your lab you’ve learned the old truth that when you stir the water, you’re going to get wet, too!

Dr. Edwards addressing the water crisis in Flint.

Dr. Edwards with community members addressing the water crisis in Flint.




More Lead Drama in Schools, but More Progress

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

New Orleans  Why aren’t all school districts in the country simply crying “Uncle” and conceding that they will test all of their schools for lead in the water? They must know this is a tide coming towards them that they cannot resist. Yet, still we find foot dragging and, in some cases, the flimsiest of excuses thrown in our way.

Last time we visited this topic, we were noting the progress made by Local 100 with the officials of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) on this issue. As we reported, they were willing to finally accelerate the testing program so that all schools in the district would be tested within 2 to 3 years, rather than the 30 plus they had initially proposed at 10 or so per year. All good. Real progress!

But, not so fast. When Orell Fitzsimmons, director of Local 100’s office in Houston talked to them in more detail about the testing program and shared information about other school districts’ program, it turned out that they were NOT planning to test any of the water fountains. Bizarre, since this is perhaps the main entry point for water to get in our little darlings’ systems. When pushed by the union and some of our school board allies, the response from the district was, “No problem. We have filters on all of the water fountains.” Problem solved.

No, Fitzsimmons and some of our members in maintenance then checked on the water fountains including the models and serial numbers. Whoops! Turns out filters were not installed on water fountains of that era. So, check and checkmate, and the district has now agreed to check all of the water fountains. The question that lingers here and elsewhere, is why the obfuscation. We’re talking about children and their safety. Why play games?

There’s also progress in New Orleans finally. A front page story on lead and a picture of leaders and members from A Community Voice, affiliated with ACORN International, demanding testing in all of the schools is finally making progress. It’s slippery, but the response has come from one of the school board members indicating they will test all schools and are going to use the better protocols from West Virginia which have become the standard nationally exceeding that of the EPA. Louisiana is also pushing the Orleans School board to notify all parents that they need to have their children tested in conformity with Louisiana State law. Needless to say that it’s happening.

Meanwhile, Local 100 members are on the move towards the school board meeting in Dallas and Little Rock at the end of this month to demand testing in these district as well. A meeting with retired workers with lead exposure is also being scheduled in Dallas. It will be interesting to see whether Dallas and Little Rock are learning something from other districts and ready to say “Uncle” and get on with it, or is going to drag this out at the risk of more workers and students?

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits


Big Win for School Workers and Children in Houston


Houston Press

Budapest   I may have drug my gear across two Metro lines and two trains and one airport in Paris to end up in Budapest meeting with Mate Varga, the head of the Civic College in Hungary, along the Danube last night with everyone watching Euro 2016, a soccer match, but my mind was also on Houston and the huge victory won by Local 100 for school workers and children. Perhaps it’s not the kind of victory many would expect, like a twenty-five cent raise or an extra break or holiday, but it was the kind of victory that highlights the kind of community-and-worker-based union that we try to build at Local 100. Simply put: we want to get the lead out!

I’m not going to pretend we were early to this fight. For yearsI have heard about the dangers of lead for children. ACORN went after Sherwin-Williams to try to force them to bear up to the responsibility for decades of lead poisoning. We fought in Argentina and Peru to keep lead from continuing to be produced in paint plants over the last decade, years after such production had been banned in the United States and Europe. Furthermore, Louisiana ACORN and then A Community Voice, was constantly involved in lead testing right under my nose in New Orleans day after day. Nonetheless, Flint, Michigan was a wakeup call for us as organizers, just as it was for the whole country. And, following up on Flint, when school districts like Newark started shutting down water fountains and bringing in bottled water for children, we finally got the message. Our union represents school workers and they, and the children they serve, may be in danger, so it was time for action.

Our members in the Houston Independent School District led the way, demanding testing in all of the schools. Orell Fitzsimmons, the office director for the union in Houston went with some of our stewards and met with some of the school trustees and raised the issue, after we got what would have to be described as a brushoff from the district on our initial requests. They had obviously decided to play ostrich on this issue, even after we independently began collecting dirt samples around the schools in Houston and Dallas.

The Houston Press and the daily Houston Chronicle finally jumped on the story with us, so I’ll let the Press tell the rest of the story:

In interviews Wednesday, before the changed policy was announced, School Board Trustee Harvin Moore and United Labor Unions Local 100 Field Director Orell Fitzsimmons said HISD officials had previously told them they planned to test only nine schools for lead each year. When asked about this plan, HISD spokeswoman Lila Hollin said Wednesday, “As far as how many and which ones, that hasn’t been decided yet.”

At a rate of only nine schools per year, with 283 schools to test, the district wouldn’t have finished its tests for more than 30 years.

Yet around 6 p.m. Wednesday, after the Press spoke with Hollin and called numerous HISD employees that day with questions about the district’s lead testing policy, Board of Education trustees received a one-paragraph email from HISD Interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt. That email said something very different.

“While we have tested a number of our schools in HISD, we have decided to take a much more proactive and aggressive approach,” Huewitt wrote in the email. “I have asked the facilities team to test all elementary schools this year. All middle schools will be tested in the 2017-2018 school year. Finally, any remaining high schools that have not been completed with the bond program will be tested in the 2018-2019 school year.”

“Results for each facility will be posted on the HISD website as well as a schedule outlining when testing will occur,” Huewitt added.

Fitzsimmons first took an interest in HISD’s lead testing policies after watching the water crisis unfold in Flint, Mich. He submitted multiple public information requests asking about HISD’s records and practices regarding testing for lead contamination, and spoke at the June 9 Board of Education meeting about the district’s need to test all of its schools for lead, starting with elementary schools – the age group most at risk for lead poisoning.

As Houston has proven, finally, on lead, you can run, but you can’t hide. Dallas is next on our target list, but, frankly, now that one district after another is getting the message that they need to do their job of protecting children in school buildings, none of us should allow any schools to not do the same.


Demanding Lead Testing in Schools and Real Response

leadinwaterNew Orleans   The water crisis in Flint, Michigan seemed like a wakeup for America and the world. Lead was in the water. People couldn’t drink it. The damage to children – and adults – was incalculable. Lead was found in other schools in the country when districts began testing, like Newark, New Jersey for example.

Local 100, United Labor Unions, represents school workers in Dallas and Houston, so of course we demanded they test the water for the sake of both the workers and children. These are huge school districts. The adverse impacts would be devastating. Despite Flint, Newark and other districts, we’re caught in a crisis of incrementalism. So far we have gotten the Houston district to test perhaps five schools build before a certain date. Hardly a comprehensive program. Dallas is dragging their feet even more, despite proven cases where our workers were employed in a records storage area that was an old auto facility and where lead and other heavy metals have been documented in abundance.

Some big districts have been more responsive. After a minimal test in Chicago schools showed some problems, the Chicago Public Schools hired four different contractors to test widely. According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune:

CPS said water has been tested at 265 of 324 schools that are more than 30 years old and have prekindergarten programs. Results have only been returned for 87 schools. Of those, the district said 26 schools had at least one fixture that spouted water with lead amounts in excess of 15 parts per billion. Test results have shown a wide variety of lead levels were detected in water across the city’s schools. Water from one sink at a Clearing neighborhood school for disabled children between the ages of 3 and 6 showed lead levels as high as 1,100 parts per billion — a water fountain at the building tested as high as 357 parts per billion, according to the district. Four drinking fountains and four sinks at Reilly Elementary on the Northwest Side showed high lead levels, including a water fountain on the school’s main floor that tested as high as 340 parts per billion.

Chicago is hardly the gold standard, but at least they are playing catchup. Talking to experts, the Madison, Wisconsin school district has reportedly replaced all of their lead pipes over the years in order to proactively deal with this issue in a comprehensive way.

Keep in mind that the EPA requires bottled water to not exceed 5 parts per billion and lead experts are clear that this 15 parts per billion is just plain pretend when it comes to prevent or the damage of exposure.

National expert, Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, was quoted clearly in the Tribune

“You cannot undo harm that’s been done in the past, that’s the nature of lead exposure. You can only prevent future exposure. So the sooner you get the bad news, that’s good news.” Edwards wasn’t surprised by the number of CPS buildings that have shown elevated levels of water-based lead so far. “Nothing would ever surprise me in terms of lead in school water, because (schools) have generally the oldest plumbing and the water sits around for long periods of time,” Edwards said. “That makes it more corrosive, it allows more lead particles to accumulate and in many cities the schools are the source of the worst lead in water for those reasons.”

Local 100 has also gathered soil samples from schools in Dallas and Houston and are waiting for the results. What good does it do any of us for school districts, city officials, sewer and water providers, and others to resist the testing to find out the “bad news” so we can began to protect people?

No one is pointing fingers but why the false security, the cover-ups, and obfuscation? It’s time to do the work and prevent more permanently damaging impacts for our children and workers in schools.


School Workers as Well as School Children Exposed to Lead in Texas

Pictured, left to right, Retired Workers Thomas Taylor, Doris Taylor, Kenneth Morgan and William Morgan. Photo Credit Kenneth Stretcher

Pictured, left to right, Retired Workers Thomas Taylor, Doris Taylor, Kenneth Morgan and William Morgan. Photo Credit Kenneth Stretcher

New Orleans    The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) had acquired the old Proctor & Gamble soap manufacturing plant relatively speaking for a song. A big, hulking highly visible building on Lamar Street near downtown, the facility became a multi-purpose center for odds and ends of the district large and small. The district is now shuttering the building because they have found lead, mercury, and other heavy metals. In speaking to Channel 5 TV, Dallas ISD spokesman Andre Riley said “the district is not sure what caused the contamination at the 95-year-old building.” We can only imagine!

United Labor Unions Local 100 represents workers from bus drivers to custodians to food service workers throughout Dallas County. They are reading the reports from this building very closely, as well as the reports from Flint, Newark, and around the country where schools have been found to have lead and other chemicals in the water in old buildings. In Texas there is no requirement that schools test the water, so workers are likely to find parents joining them in making demands to assure the water is safe to drink, but our members, both working and retired, are now also worried about whether the conditions and lack of safeguards may have already been damaging to them.

Kenneth Stretcher, Local 100’s longtime organizer in Dallas, met with ten retired DISD workers this week who had worked in the old P&G plant who were vocal on these issues. Though the district has promised that it would provide and pay for blood tests for any workers concerned, there has been no follow-up to implement this promise with current or former workers. Local 100 has also been joining hands with community organizations working in the area of the old plant who are working with the medical school to provide blood tests in the community, and they may step in where the district has been slow to act.

The problems in this building are hardly new. A Texas State Libraries story talking conditions in the building in the 1990s said “the records center was located on the sixth floor of an old Proctor and Gamble soap factory…the conditions were less than favorable for storing records: the floor contained standing water, birds were in flight, and some boxes were held together by mold. Additionally, a variety of wildlife had nested in the containers….” And, they weren’t even thinking about the conditions or their impact on health and safety for the workers.

This will be a big campaign in Dallas, but it also been a wakeup call for Local 100. We are now moving to set up a system to collect soil samples on schools where our members work throughout Houston and Dallas. Obviously, we will join with the community to demand testing of the water quality especially in the older facilities. We are expanding such tests to our health facilities in Louisiana and state facilities in Arkansas where we have members as well. We are reaching out for help to university partners who have state-of-the-art testing equipment.

It was shocking recently to read that OSHA has issued almost no new rules during the seven years of the Obama Administration. Where were they on this lead and heavy metals assault on workers in public and private?