“That should horrify everybody in this community”: Lead found in water, dust particles in Okemos Public Schools

Print More

Parents and teachers expressed their concerns over the recent lead discovery found in several classrooms at Okemos Public Montessori at Central, an elementary school within the Okemos Public School District. Repeated testing found lead in both the drinking water and dust particles in various classrooms across OPM, and on Jan. 22 several teachers, parents, and community members spoke at the biweekly meeting of the Okemos Board of Education.

A two-part test first took place on Oct. 19 and Nov. 8; subsequent testing occurred on Nov. 22 and Dec. 4 and 5, according to Okemos Public Schools. In order to determine which classrooms were considered “safe” and which classrooms were concern areas, the district created a five parts per billion threshold, in which any classrooms measuring higher than the threshold for lead presence would be considered “action locations.”

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, if a water system’s supply measures above 15 ppb for lead, “corrective action” must be taken, though no levels of lead are considered safe. Initial testing found one location at OPM measuring 9 ppb; after the first round of testing, two locations also measured above the district’s 5 ppb threshold, and by December, five classrooms measured between 6 and 49 ppb.

The first teacher to speak out regarding her safety concerns at the meeting was Haley Blake, the instructor for OPM’s Enrichment room. The Enrichment room houses 3- and 4-year-old children whose routines in the classroom include eating snacks and taking afternoon naps on bedding, both stored in the now-contaminated space daily.

“My concern is that my room is not safe for my children, and it is not safe for me or my workers. I have had parents come to me, and I’ve had some peers support me as well… but my classroom is not technically part of OPM, for my program… I am an island by myself and I am the one that is standing up for these kids,” said Blake during her public comment.

For many teachers like Blake, the environment cultivated in their classrooms is open and inviting. Students quickly feel like family, and the community they share with one another is strong; therefore, the concerns over lead contamination have been at the forefront of many employees’ minds.

“They are 3 and 4 [years old], and that classroom is my second home and those kids are my family– all of the kids in this school are my family. Just to think that something this dangerous, I could not see, I could not prevent, is a very scary feeling,” said Blake after the meeting.

Courtney Block, the parent of a child enrolled in the Enrichment Room, also spoke at the meeting regarding her concerns for her son’s health.

“I wasn’t planning on speaking, but I felt very moved to speak, especially when I kept hearing the words, ‘safe, dry, and warm’ [to describe winter classroom conditions], and I thought, ‘well that’s funny,’ because I couldn’t even bring my son’s bedding home – what he naps on at school – because of the lead levels that they found in his room. That doesn’t sound safe to me,” said Block. “To know and to think about my son, my 3-year-old son, playing and snacking and napping in lead-covered bedding– I mean, that’s horrifying. That should horrify everybody in this community.”

Michigan is ranked the third highest state in the nation for children with elevated lead levels in their bloodstream, according to a 2021 study, and the effects of lead on children under 6 can include behavior and learning problems, slowed growth, seizures, or even death, according to the Boston Children’s Hospital.

Another staff member that voiced their concern over the safety of these classrooms during the meeting was Kelly Bertilrud, a third and fourth grade teacher at OPM whose own classroom has measured alarmingly high, at 49 ppb on Dec. 5.

“The work I get to do here [in my classroom] each day with my students lights up my soul. It’s from this place of caring for my home, my students, my colleagues, my community that I am here to advocate today… on behalf of OPM, we ask that a serious conversation take place about the long-term solutions… I urge you to consider a plan to find a safer place for our students and staff to spend our days,” stated Bertilrud.

Kelly Bertilrud, alongside various OPM staff, speaks out during the Okemos school board meeting on Jan. 22| Screenshot

Various Okemos Public Schools representatives, including the Teacher’s Union representative and the district’s Communications and Public Relations Specialist, declined to comment on the lead contamination at OPM.

Concerns over lead levels in drinking water skyrocketed in 2014, when the city of Flint, Michigan underwent their own lead-contaminated water crisis. Roughly 17% of homes registered above MDHHS’s “15 ppb” action level in Flint at the time. Out of the nearly 100,000 residents residing in Flint during the water contamination, thousands of children who drank the contaminated water were found to have dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstream following blood tests.

A health official from the Ingham County Health Department provided recommendations to parents of children at OPM that they “could” have their children receive a lead blood test; however, families were required to find their own location that offered a lead blood test for their children.

Environmental testing for lead detection in previously-contaminated water was most recently conducted on Jan. 24 in seven OPM classrooms. All results came back under the district’s 5 ppb threshold or undetected. Daily pipe flushing has been used in an attempt to clean the contaminated water, and following the Jan. 24 results, the Environmental Resources Group recommends that OPM continues the daily pipe flushing to continue attempts to remove the presence of lead in the water.

The ERG will continue to work with the Ingham County Health Department to make plans for future lead water testing at OPM to ensure classroom health and safety for students and teachers alike, though no long-term solutions have been announced at this time to ensure the safety of staff and students at Okemos Public Schools. 

Comments are closed.