Lead in Portland Public Schools. It’s forced out a superintendent, delayed a possible bond measure and uncovered major management problems. And the district may have a legal fight on its hands soon: a Southeast Portland family blames the district for their child’s latest health problems.
Trina Harper sits in the food court at Portland’s Gateway Mall on a summer day. Her daughter, Abigail, eats off her mom’s plate and occasionally turns a cartwheel. She whispers to her mom.
“She wants to go shop at Target,” Trina said, with a laugh.
Nine year-old Abigail likes school. She goes to Creston K-8 for its deaf and hard-of-hearing program.
Communities across the Northwest were shocked recently to discover dangerously high lead levels in their water. How did this happen, and what’s being done to fix the problem?
Creston was one of the first schools found with high levels of lead in its drinking water. Since then, Portland Public Schools has found countless fixtures with elevated lead levels across Oregon’s largest district.
Few children have elevated lead on blood tests. Two children at Rose City Park school tested high in June. Updated numbers from Multnomah County identify seven more people with high lead on preliminary screens.
Abigail’s levels were detectable but not high.
However, Abigail has kidney disease, which means the Harpers have to watch her blood pressure. Trina was alarmed by the aftermath of a recent surgery.
“Her blood pressure had elevated to astronomical numbers for someone her size and age. That prompted like a big scare at the hospital,” recalled Trina.
Trina recalled the hospital calling in child abuse medical specialists and investigators from child protective services to see if the family had done something wrong.
“They considered it medical neglect at first because they weren’t sure why this child isn’t being treated for blood pressure, and then after looking into it, and seeing that she had been looked at for it before, only it had never been that crazy, the charge was unfounded and they dropped that case,” Harper said.
For months, doctors ran tests and tried different treatments because of the dangerous combination of high blood pressure and kidney disease.
“In trying to figure out what was causing the high blood pressure, she’s been hospitalized multiple times – in December for an entire week, she was hospitalized,” Trina remembered.
Then, at the end of May, Portland Public Schools announced high lead levels in several Creston water fixtures, including a bathroom sink in the hard-of-hearing area.
“After all of this came to light on May 27, we researched it a little and called her doctors, and said, ‘Is this something that could be a possibility?’” Trina recounted.
“Both urology and nephrology said, ‘Oh my gosh, tell me she’s not been drinking lead.’”
Dr. Joyce Lee at Randall Children’s Hospital has written on the Harpers’ behalf, warning that high — or prolonged — lead levels can damage kidneys. The study she cites says children with kidney disease — like Abigail — could be at greatest risk.
Portland Public Schools officials said they can’t comment on Abigail’s pending complaint. They referred medical questions about lead to Multnomah County. And the county referred specific questions about how lead poisoning affects children with other health difficulties — like kidney disease — to Oregon Health and Science University. Director of the poison center at OHSU, Zane Horowitz, acknowledged the connection but downplayed it some.
“Does lead in the long run cause additional kidney problems? Yes, over a lifetime of 30 years or more, it can lead to high blood pressure,” Horowitz said. “For a child, that’s probably not an immediate issue.”
Official responses to the Harper family have emphasized changes the district is making, such as testing district-wide this summer and providing water dispensers.
Multnomah County public health has weighed in on the environmental factors involving lead since news broke of lead in school drinking water in Portland-area schools.
Perry Cabot runs the Multnomah County lead program, including investigations of lead poisoning cases. He said drinking water is an unlikely source of lead poisoning.
“Over the last three and a half years, we’ve done more than 180 investigations, and in none of those investigations have we found that water is the probable source of a child’s exposure,” Cabot said.
County officials said lead in institutions like schools is rarely the source of lead poisoning in children. It’s more often from homes and lead paint or other substances.
But Trina said she lives in a newer home that has tested clean for lead. Her older children, who attend a different school district, didn’t have lead show up in their blood. Only Abigail.
Trina took her frustrations to a community meeting at Creston in June. She wanted administrators to share responsibility for Abigail’s high blood pressure.
“How do I explain to her that the dozen times she’s been in the hospital this school year or the six surgeries she’s had to bring these numbers down were possibly not necessary because it wasn’t caused by her own physical issues, but possibly by the ingestion of lead?” Trina asked.
Trina has hired an attorney and is preparing to file a tort claim. She believes the school district didn’t protect her daughter from lead-tainted water, and she says given Abigail’s health history the district should’ve known the risks.