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EPA targets lead contamination in Georgia schools, homes

The Environmental Protection Agency has begun excavating and back filling properties on Atlanta’s Westside that were found to have dangerous levels of lead in the soil on Jan. 27, 2020. MIGUEL MARTINEZ / FOR THE AJC
The Environmental Protection Agency has begun excavating and back filling properties on Atlanta’s Westside that were found to have dangerous levels of lead in the soil on Jan. 27, 2020. MIGUEL MARTINEZ / FOR THE AJC

Georgia schools have received a grant of $1.1 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to identify sources of lead in drinking water at schools or child care facilities.

The Georgia Department of Education will use the funds for testing in high-risk communities across the state.

Georgia was one of 22 states that received a failing grade on protecting students from lead in water at school, based on data in a 2019 report from Environment America, a group of environmental advocates. In Atlanta, water sources at 25 of 60 schools tested had lead above 15 parts per billion, the level at which the EPA recommends remediation.

There is no amount of lead that is safe for children. Exposure can lead to lowered IQ, damage to the brain and nervous system, slow growth and behavioral problems in young children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Few states have provided funding for lead testing through school drinking water programs. A 2017 bill in the Georgia Senate that would have required school water testing died in the House. It was reintroduced in the last legislative session.

In 2018, the EPA introduced the Federal Action Plan to Reduce Childhood Lead Exposures and Associated Health Impacts. Part of that includes a proposed rule that would require water systems to take drinking water samples from the schools and child care facilities they serve. The grant announcement came just days after the EPA held a public meeting to discuss the cleanup of lead-contaminated soil at 66 properties in the Westside neighborhood of English Avenue.

Of 124 samples taken in the neighborhood, more than half have shown lead concentrations above the risk levels set by the federal agency.

This month, the agency will begin moving the contaminated soils to a licensed waste facility and will fill the excavated areas with clean soil. Air will be monitored during the excavations to ensure the safety of residents and workers.

They will continue to sample soils in the neighborhood to determine if the coverage area needs to be expanded. Currently, the EPA is offering free soil testing to residents and property owners of 368 properties between Joseph E. Boone Boulevard NW, Chestnut Street NW, Cameron Alexander Boulevard NW and the old CSX rail line.

Prompted by data that an Emory doctoral student shared in 2018 showing elevated levels of lead In soil samples, the EPA surveyed the area and discovered slag on two lots near Elm Street.

Slag is the waste material left over when metal is separated from its ore. It may contain high concentrations of toxic elements such as arsenic and lead, which might be released into the environment, polluting soils and water.

The EPA is investigating the cause of contamination, said a spokesperson for the agency.