Health department releases result of lead testing in Shelby County Schools

Investigations

Testing was completed more than a year ago

Note: This story has been updated with new comments from the Shelby County Health Department and Shelby County Schools.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — More than a year later, the Shelby County Health Department has finally handed over the results from the lead testing it conducted on SCS students.

It’s something WREG has been requesting since the testing was completed in April 2020.

After submitting six different open records requests over the last 15 months, we finally got what we asked for — the results from the lead tests the health department conducted on Shelby County students and staff after the district discovered dangerous levels of lead in water sources in 35 schools in 2019.

Health officials refused to go over the results they finally handed over until they discuss it in the county commission meeting Wednesday. So we took the results to a medical expert at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital who explained off camera that this document is important.

It shows 1,392 people were tested at the affected schools. Of those, about 96 percent had lead levels that were less than, or equal to, five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.

Some results resulted in a clotted specimen or were inconclusive, leaving nine students and staff — or less than 1 percent — with five or more micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.

A day after this story aired, the health department told us those nine students and staff were later retested and deemed safe. WREG is working to find out why that information wasn’t included in a final report we received in a records request.

The health department said the re-testing happened between January and March, 2020. It involved drawing blood from the arm, a “more accurate test,” instead of the initial finger prick, since a finger “can be contaminated.”

SCS, who also didn’t comment until Wednesday, called the report “encouraging news.”

District representatives stated before that the water sources with high levels of lead were shut off and removed. The district says it’s working with the University of Memphis Engineering Department on a remediation plan.

The CDC and the World Health Organization say there are no safe levels of lead, but the five or more micrograms per deciliter found in those nine students and staff can lead to decreased intelligence in children, behavioral difficulties and learning problems. As the exposure increases, the severity of symptoms and effects also increases.

Of those nine with higher levels of lead, four were at Central High, where a kitchen sink was found to have lead above the EPA threshold. There was one student each from Douglass Elementary, Egypt Elementary, Idlewild Elementary, Ridgeway Middle and Treadwell Middle.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray said all water sources with high levels of lead were immediately shut off, removed and replaced.

What the results don’t tell us is whether the students were exposed to lead at their school or somewhere else.

SCS said it received a copy of the lead findings and will be at the county commission meeting as well to present its “lead remediation” plan.

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