Rameen Aminzadeh, LaTricea Adams, and Talia Buford discussed the impact of the Flint water crisis on the testing, treatment, and outreach of water systems across the country, including the District, where high levels of lead have been found in several public schools. (Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman)

Troubling levels of lead found in drinking water at several D.C. schools have parents, water officials, and city leaders on high alert. Despite efforts by the Department of General Services to allay fears and work to install proper filtration systems, parents of students at Minor Elementary, Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan in Northeast, and Payne Elementary in Southeast are worried lead exposure may impact their children’s health in the same manner as residents of Flint, Michigan.

According to an April 25 talk hosted by the Environmental Law Society, the Black Law Students Association and the American Constitution Society at the University of D.C.’s David A. Clarke School of Law, parental fears may be justified. More than 3,700 tests were performed with 17 water sources at 12 schools testing positive for extremely high levels of lead, according to the public school system.

“I’m an educator and the impact lead exposure has had on children just in terms of the cognitive issues, is staggering,” said LaTricea Adams, founder of Black Millennials for Flint, a grassroots, social movement to fight environmental injustice. “The schools tested in D.C. showed ridiculously high levels of lead and those places are not only concentrated in Wards 7 and 8, but they are also places with a high number of Black and Latino people. There is . . . apathy among people in power and were it not for the heightened sense of interest in lead contamination caused by Flint, this could be catastrophic.”

D.C. Public Schools said the general services department and their contractors followed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) guidelines in determining whether the amount of lead or other substances in drinking water is acceptable.  If unsafe levels are discovered, steps are taken immediately to prevent students and staff from drinking the water and the department establishes a treatment plan to bring the water back to safe levels.  These efforts can include replacing equipment, treating water, or installing filters.

“These are neighborhood schools, which suggests to me that the plumbing in the schools is the same or similar to that in our communities’ libraries, grocery stores, apartment complexes, and restaurants,” Belinda Sharpe, parent of a student at Minor Elementary school, told the AFRO.  “I am pleased that the schools are testing water fountains, but the city’s entire infrastructures should be evaluated so that D.C. doesn’t become the next Flint.”

Rameen Aminzadeh, chief operating officer of the humanitarian non-profit Beats, Rhymes, and Relief, said the institutionalized racism that categorized the Flint water crisis requires more than distributing bottled water and new filtration systems to remedy the long-term effects.

“The long-term effects of lead poisoning is devastating, especially when you consider that the communities impacted are already challenged by the school to prison pipeline and marginalized by disenfranchisement,” said Aminzadeh, who spent more than six weeks in Flint following the original crisis. “Unfortunately the overflow of misinformation and the lack of response from the federal government that had residents boiling water for two years only to learn that boiling lead contaminated water actually increases its intensity is what you want to avoid in D.C.”

Aminzadeh recited a laundry list of chronic diseases and infections caused by lead exposure, including bleeding from their ears, staph infections, and loss of memory, adding that the psychological toll is immeasurable. “Psychologically, the piece that is not being talked about, is the stigma attached to lead exposure,” Aminzadeh said.  “Flint is like a chemical war zone – something seen in Libya or Syria.”