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State retesting public schools for lead in drinking water, officials say communication will improve

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Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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The Senate Health and Social Services Committee met to discuss retesting for lead in Delaware’s public schools.

Education Secretary Mark Holodick says retesting of water in Delaware schools will cost between $1.2 and $1.5 million, not including the cost of repairs and replacing equipment. The money will come from the state General Fund.

"This initiative is an important first step to help restore public confidence, which we see as a very high priority as we move forward,” Holodick says.

Holodick reiterated that all public and charter schools will be retested, with testing underway in Capital, Colonial, and Indian River, which produced the highest lead level results in a first round of testing funded by a federal grant. He says those initial tests were mishandled and produced botched results, but testing and communication this time around is "completely different."

He notes there is about $150,000 left over from the original $209,000 grant, which they hope to use to test lead in early childcare centers across the state.

"We did it on the cheap," Holodick says about the initial testing process. "We sent well-intended, no question, we sent things out... we shouldn't be surprised we didn't get the kind of consistent, solid results we expected. We are now."

As sources are retested, some still reflect levels higher than the threshold set by the EPA. And even those testing below 7 parts per million, Holodick says are not low enough.

"We should be working, as close as possible, toward non-detectable lead levels in our water," he says. "I think there is an awful lot we could do in very short time, we have some districts in this state that have served as an example of making great progress. I think as we move forward, as these results come in, and we really have a solid understanding of the landscape that we are testing for, we can make really progressive, thoughtful and not just progressive, but aggressive goals."

Holodick expects all testing to be done in early May, this time by contracted experts, and will communicate results as they are received.

Any school drinking water sources flagged with high lead levels have been turned off or have signage posted that the water is not suitable for consumption.

Holodick says the next steps after testing

Department of Health and Social Services Secretary Molly Magarik notes that Delaware’s lead problem doesn’t end in schools.

“We have manufacturers who produce chemicals," Magarik says. "We know that lead is in other places.”

She adds some children are testing for high levels of lead, but it is unlikely that schools are the main source of contamination. She says her department is requesting $1 million in the state budget to find those sources.

“Is it food, is it home, like where's the risk?" Magarik says. "So not only is that better supporting families and children who test and are at an elevated level of seven or above, but it also helps us better understand risk and gather more data around where we are seeing the highest risk exposures take place.”

Symptoms of lead poisoning include loss of appetite, feeling tired or irritable, poor growth, nausea and vomiting, constipation, stomach pain, muscle weakness and headache.

Rachel Sawicki is Delaware Public Media's New Castle County Reporter. They are non-binary and use they/them pronouns.