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Lead Contamination at Five County High Schools

JROTC's shooting ranges cause lead exposure concerns at Mount Vernon, Hayfield, Herndon, Edison and South Lakes.

Margaret Newman is one of hundreds of parents who received a letter from Fairfax County Public Schools in January stating her child might have been exposed to lead dust.

Newman’s daughter, Kathryn, is a senior at Mount Vernon High School, and a member of the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program. Mount Vernon is one of five county high schools that confirmed the presence of lead dust, through wipe samples, in the JROTC air rifle ranges. The shooting ranges are set up in the JROTC classrooms at each of the schools. Other schools affected are Hayfield, Herndon, Edison and South Lakes. The rooms were also used by other programs in several of the schools.

"It's not like they're in that room all the time," said Margaret Newman, who wasn't too concerned about the finding.

The students practiced shooting air rifles — like BB guns — in the rooms, and still do, except now they're shooting steel-based pellets rather than lead pellets, said Tony Casipit, spokesperson for the countywide JROTC program.

Letters were sent to parents of students who school officials determined might have also been exposed to the dust. Art students at South Lakes also used the JROTC room for art class, and wrestlers at Mount Vernon used the JROTC room there for wrestling practice, said Doug O’Neill, school spokesperson from the office of safety and environmental health.

"Everyone who was in those rooms was sent a letter," said O'Neill.

THE GUNS USE cold compressed air to fire the pellets, said retired Col. Robert Hardy, a Robinson Secondary School rifle team instructor in Fairfax. The lead contamination came from the pellets once they were on the ground, not from the firing method or the guns.

"In essence, they're BB-guns," said O'Neill.

O'Neill said, "Nobody really knew the ranges existed," but when he discovered them, his office began "asking hard questions."

"I don't think it ever crossed anybody's radar screen. I knew we had lots of programs; I've been in the schools 14 years," said O'Neill. "We basically went out to review what they were, and asked for wipe samples."

The samples resulted in the discovery of lead dust, but there weren't any county standards in place to gauge whether the levels detected were dangerous, which O'Neill said concerned him. "I wrestled with that. We used the most conservative standard we could find."

In the mean time, the county shut the ranges down until hired contractors could clean the lead out of the rooms. Ten percent of the samples from each of the rooms came back with elevated levels, O'Neill said.

"Those environmental samples don't mean anything," said O'Neill. "We haven't had any elevated [blood] leads come back."

CONTAMINATION WAS CONFINED to the five rooms, one in each school, and did not affect other areas of the schools, O'Neill said. The health standards applied matched the Environmental Protection Agency's standards for what it considers dangerous levels for children who are most at risk and still in developmental stages, or about six years old and younger, he said. It would take a higher level to affect someone who is older, said Pat Petro, an environmental health specialist with the Fairfax County Health Department. Lead causes health effects ranging from behavioral problems and learning disabilities, to seizures and death, according to the EPA. Petro said lead produces flu-like symptoms, and its effects vary from person to person.

"We found lead that exceeded a very low standard, and we cleaned it up," said O'Neill. "We cleaned, and cleaned, and recleaned; we took it down to what is allowed on the floor for 6-year-olds."

The schools did notify the environmental health office of the lead issue, but Petro said no doctors had contacted the environmental health division as of Friday, March 30. Shannon McKeon, also a county environmental health specialist, said doctors would refer patients with higher than normal lead levels to the health department, so it's a good sign there haven't been any calls, she said.

According to John Robbins, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, the handling and use of lead pellets shouldn't be a health issue if certain fundamental guidelines are followed. In any range, the pellets should be removed and the floors should be periodically scrubbed, he said. And since there is virtually no lead released into the air when the pellets are fired, the contamination doesn't come from the act of firing the pellets, it comes from ignoring the safety guidelines, he said.

"With air gun pellets, health does not have to be an issue at all," said Robbins, who was not aware of the specifics of the Junior ROTC ranges, but spoke generally about the standard safety procedures of air rifle ranges.

A draft of a Fairfax County Health Department memo sent to school officials in January included a copy of a letter from Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, the county's director of health, to physicians and laboratory directors stating that the students most at risk were those who were present during post-firing cleanings. The letter also warns physicians and lab technicians to prepare for increased lead screen requests.

BUT NEITHER THE COUNTY health department, nor Fairfax County schools, required the students to be tested for lead. In the January letter to parents, officials recommended parents take their children to private physicians and ask for the blood test. O'Neill said there have been no cases of elevated blood levels reported.

Based on the letter and what Newman researched on her own, she decided there wasn't any urgency to get Kathryn checked out.

"I couldn't see the major uproar," she said.

Newman said she would ask her daughter's physician to test the lead levels in her daughter's blood at an upcoming physical in preparation for college. But until then, she's confident that the school acted responsibly, she said.

"I don't think they put anyone in jeopardy," said Newman.

Kathy LeCounte, another Mount Vernon parent, agreed that the children aren't in the room frequently, or for extended periods of time, so she thinks the exposure was probably minimal.

"If they were living in it, I’d be really concerned," said LeCounte.

You'd have to eat the pellets to be exposed to any lead danger, said Hardy, the Robinson rifle coach.

"Our high school students are smart enough not to eat them, and they're trained to wash their hands before consuming anything [after handling the pellets]," he said.