Getting the lead out

Shortly before Thanksgiving, parents at Dallas Independent School District's Preston Hollow Elementary School got some alarming news. Their children, who had suffered through a six-month paint job at the Walnut Hill Lane school--a job that was supposed to be completed during the summer break--may have been breathing dust from lead-based paint during some of that time, according to a letter from Principal Phil Jackson.

Toxic levels of lead, which usually build up in a person's bloodstream over time, can lead to serious health problems in children and adults. Anemia is a common symptom of lead toxicity in children, according to Dr. Richard Adams, DISD's director of health services. Adults who inhale concentrated lead fumes--usually in industrial settings--can suffer neurological damage and death.

When the Preston Hollow parents got the letter, lead levels had not yet been determined. In fact, no one bothered to check whether the paint being scraped from the 50-year-old school's windowsills had been tested for lead until a concerned Preston Hollow parent happened to ask whether any testing was done.

"It's standard procedure to test for lead before you begin sanding," says Cary Wilson of Carrollton-based American Environmental Specialists, which DISD brought in two weeks ago to clean up and contain the dust at Preston Hollow.

Preston Hollow is one of 21 schools that were recently painted as part of Phase 1 of a multi-million-dollar contract with Honeywell Inc. to make the schools more energy-efficient. None of the 21 schools, many of which are 60 to 70 years old, was tested for the presence of lead-based paint.

The contract also includes installing new heating and cooling mechanisms and solar panels in some schools, plus sealing windows, painting and coating them with a substance that makes removing graffiti and other grime easier.

Some school board members and others have criticized the contract for promising energy savings that are hard to calculate. The contractors also have come under attack for taking too long and charging too much for the painting.

Now district officials are questioning who should have ordered the schools to be tested first and who should now pay for the tests. It took a week for Garrett and Associates to test Preston Hollow--a process that included the services of Parkland Memorial Hospital's Dr. Thomas Kurt, a leading lead expert.

"Honeywell may have erred in this," says one district official who did not want to be named. "They've been concerned, but whether they'll pick up the tab isn't known yet. You would think that an environmental group that was brought in to improve our energy efficiency and raise our environmental consciousness would be up to the highest level of safety."

Honeywell, however, sees things differently. "My first-blush response is that it's the school district's responsibility to test for lead," says Patrick Sexton, a Honeywell spokesman. "It is a preexisting condition. Lead was first raised as an issue in the early 1970s. The problem has been around. We don't expect to find it, and we don't usually find it."

Results of the paint testing at Preston Hollow were encouraging. Lead was found in the paint that was being scraped from outside sills and seeping through poorly sealed windows, but the level was not high enough to pose a health hazard, according to a letter Kurt sent Jackson on November 24.

"I wanted you to know as soon as possible that the amount of lead-levels in the building is well below standards set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development," the letter states.

This was good news for Preston Hollow and the 20 other Dallas schools. "But it would have been nice to have had the paint tested in the first place," says Jackson. He says several teachers had blood tests as a precautionary measure, but the results were negative.

"Preston Hollow was probably the worst-case scenario, because of the amount of dust in the school," says DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander. "The other schools were sanded and painted a while ago, so there isn't much dust left."

But lead is only a part of the problems the schools have had with the painting contract, which Honeywell subcontracted to American General Supply, which in turn subcontracted out to other companies, including Quality Designs of DeSoto.

"The quality of the work has not been good," says Jackson. "We have not been happy with the finished product. There have been personnel issues--crews taking too many breaks. And it has taken far too long. We were told the work would be finished when school started."

School board trustee Roxan Staff was horrified at the slow pace of the painting at the schools in her district--Preston Hollow, Long Middle School, and Woodrow Wilson High School.

"They started scraping at Preston Hollow in May, and on the first day of school, the building was in the same condition," says Staff.

One school official says that unless the painting work is finished in a more timely and satisfactory manner, the district might file suit against Honeywell. "It's been a big blame game, trying to determine which subcontractors are at fault." Meanwhile, it is the schoolchildren who must endure the distractions and inconvenience.

"They were scraping for months, and it is still not finished," says one exasperated Preston Hollow parent. "It's been a debacle, and the lead scare was just one more headache.

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Ann Zimmerman