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What parents need to know and do if their child’s school had unsafe lead levels in water tests

As school lead level test results continue to emerge, concerned parents are asking what they should do next.

Twenty-four schools had at least one unsafe water source out of the 2,300 samples tested so far by Shelby County Schools. Test results from 1,200 more samples from about 30 schools are expected to be released Monday. The state threshold for unsafe water is above 20 parts of lead per billion parts.

The unsafe water sources at affected schools are either no longer in use or being removed this week, district officials said.

Shelby County Schools isn’t the only district to discover elevated lead levels in drinking water. Nearly 100 other schools across Tennessee in 30 districts found alarming results in tests that state law now requires every other year.

But the results from the state’s largest district were highly anticipated because of its large inventory of buildings that are more than 40 years old and the maintenance backlog of half a billion dollars that district leaders have been struggling to fulfill.

For children, ingesting even low levels of lead can interfere with brain development, cause aggressiveness or inattentiveness, and impede academic achievement, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Here’s what parents should know about the results and what they can do next:

The Tennessee Department of Health encourages parents of children in affected schools to contact their child’s health provider.

“Since blood lead testing is the only way to determine a child’s blood lead level, parents should discuss their child’s health history with their child’s health care provider to determine if blood lead testing is appropriate,” department officials said in a statement.

Risks to children depends on factors such as child’s age, weight, amount of water consumed, and the amount of lead in the water. Schools aren’t the only places children can come in contact with lead.

“Children may also be exposed to other significant sources of lead, including paint, soil or dust,” the statement said.

If that’s too expensive, the Shelby County Health Department plans to offer free blood tests in various neighborhoods starting Tuesday.

Free lead exposure screening and blood tests for children at affected schools

    The Shelby County Health Department will begin offering lead screening and testing at no charge to children who attend Shelby County Schools where elevated lead levels have been detected. No appointment or proof of health insurance is required, but a parent or legal guardian must accompany the child. For more information about lead and lead screening and testing, visit the department’s website at or call 901-222-9000.

  • WHEN: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday starting Nov. 12
  • WHERE: Cawthon Public Health Clinic, 1000 Haynes, 38114
    Collierville Public Health Clinic (Tuesdays and Thursdays only), 167 Washington St., 38017
    Hickory Hill Public Health Clinic, 6590 Kirby Center Cove, 38118
    Immunization Clinic, 814 Jefferson, Room 216, 38105
    Millington Public Health Clinic, 8225 Highway 51 North, 38053
    Shelby Crossing Public Health Clinic, 6170 Macon Road, 38133
    Southland Mall Public Health Clinic, 1287 Southland Mall, 38116

On Friday, Director Alisa Haushalter released details on where parents can get free blood testing for children in affected schools. She said parents shouldn’t feel they have to rush to get their child tested, but testing is encouraged.

If a blood test comes back with high levels of lead — which Tennessee considers to be 5 milligrams per deciliter of blood — healthcare providers can conduct more tests to see if the lead has entered the child’s bones or other organs.

Children are generally tested for lead when they are toddlers and annually during checkups until about age 6. About 730 children in Shelby County had high levels of lead in their blood in 2016 and 2017, Haushalter said. Lead poisoning has decreased over the last several decades as health departments and community organizations have worked together to reduce lead exposure in homes and workplaces, she said.

“We want zero children to have high lead levels,” she said.

A whole school’s water system is not necessarily in danger if a sink or water fountain has tested positive for high levels of lead.

The results are limited to specific sinks and water fountains and do not necessarily reflect all sources of water in the school.

“While these individual fountains are being taken out of service, all other active water sources in these schools are still available and safe for use,” the district said in a statement.

Still, any level of lead is unsafe for children, according to federal researchers.

So far, we’ve only seen test results for samples that test high enough to trigger a state requirement to remove the water source.

Tennessee law defines unsafe lead levels as 20 parts of lead per billion parts of water. The federal limit is lower at 15 parts per billion. Schools are required to retest water sources between 15 to 20, but aren’t required to remove them.

Have more questions?

You can search our table for Memphis and the rest of the state to find out if your school had an unsafe water source, what the lead level was, and where the water source was in the building.

You can reach the Shelby County Health Department at 901-222-9000 or submit questions through the department’s website.

If we haven’t addressed a question you need an answer to, email us at

The post What parents need to know and do if their child’s school had unsafe lead levels in water tests appeared first on Chalkbeat.

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