More SCS schools tested positive for lead in 2017, records show

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The health department will soon begin testing students at 39 schools where dangerous levels of lead were found in recently.

But WREG has uncovered more Shelby County Schools that were found with dangerously high lead levels in testing done in 2017. Some parents don’t believe the district is being transparent enough.

This saga started when a new state law went into effect forcing every school district to test for lead.

SCS said testing was nothing new for them though, even writing in an email that the district had taken the “proactive step of performing lead water testing to ensure the safety of our students.”

They’re referring to tests they ran in the fall of 2017, testing seven water sources like fountains and sinks at more than 100 schools.

In the 2017 results, 19 schools had at least one water source with lead levels considered dangerous by the EPA. The results also revealed the lead came from water fountain units or equipment, not the pipes.

We asked district officials for an interview to explain the 2017 findings, but they only sent us a brief statement saying in part that all of the water sources were “immediately shut down” and taken “out of service, removed or replaced.”

In a follow-up email they say they notified all faculty and parents in 2017 — but we couldn’t find anyone who remembers that.

We spoke to several parents who had children enrolled at Dunbar Elementary in 2017, the same time tests were conducted that flagged two water fountains  for dangerous lead levels.

“It wasn’t reported,” parent Melvin Smith said, noting that would remember something like that.

Photo: WREG

Dunbar wasn’t on the recent list of schools with lead, so one woman who didn’t want to be identified thought her four grandchildren were in the clear.

“I’m feeling angry about it,” she said. “They should have notified us and let us know.”

All four kids went to Dunbar in 2017 but have since moved.

“I’m fixing on calling my daughter in Texas let her know what you just informed me of, of my first time hearing about it,” the grandmother said.

WREG asked district officials if they could provide proof they notified parents and faculty in 2017, but they haven’t provided it yet.

We also asked the health department if they remember screening any students following the 2017 tests. They said we had to put in an open records request, meaning it could be weeks before we get an answer.

District Superintendent Joris Ray has repeatedly said the water is safe, and that in both rounds of testing, only a small percentage of the district’s water sources were contaminated.

Health experts say that significant consequences can happen with even a little exposure to lead, particularly in children’s developing brains.

That’s one reason the county commission signed off on free health screenings to children following the recent results.

Now, after uncovering what happened in 2017, parents we spoke with at Dunbar also want their children checked.

Were you informed by SCS of the 2017 lead testing results? Let reporter Jessica Gertler know by emailing her at

Search for your school below to see its 2017 lead tests results.

If your school isn’t listed, click the document “SCS Drinking Water Quality Report,” which contains results for many schools.

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