#AskTamara: I’m concerned that contractors at my Portland, Oregon elementary school are not using lead safe work practices. What should I do?

#AskTamara

Well… tis the season! (August in Portland!) So I have been inundated with this question this week and I thought it best to respond via a blog post that folks can share with others.

Question: I’m concerned that contractors at my Portland, Oregon public elementary school (PPS) are not using lead safe work practices. What should I do?

Answer: First and foremost you need to understand and operate within the principle that, sadly, workers rights are better supported than children’s rights when it comes to potential environmental toxicity exposure in public spaces.

So while of course our concern is about the children, our concern for the teachers’ health and well being will get better traction and quicker action in a “hypothetical” scenario like this one.

As a result [and also because we are in Oregon – this might be different in other States], your first point of action is to make a complaint to Oregon OSHA about your safety concerns for the workers who work in the school. IF the teachers (and other workers at the school) are protected (which of course they should be!), the children will be protected too!

Below is the contact information for Oregon OSHA. Important points to note:

  1. When you make a complaint to Oregon OSHA about a concern for employee safety, it increases their ability to take action if you are an actual employee of the school, so please do let them know if that is the case.
  2. Additionally, they are obligated to keep your complaints anonymous if you request that they do so, so be sure to include that in your correspondence with them – specifically put “CONFIDENTIAL” in the subject line of every complaint correspondence that you submit and remind them in the body of the text of the complaint that you are requesting they keep the complaint anonymous.
  3. Along with a narrative describing what you have witnessed that made you have this concern, include photographs and videos with your complaint whenever possible. Specifically photos of work in progress that is not being done safely, photos of inappropriate containment, photos of dust left from the construction process – whatever you can think of – photograph it [you might not realize at the time what is important in the photos but these photos (or videos) can be key to most OSHA complaints].

Oregon Osha Contacts:

The second thing you can do (and again this is best supported by videos and photographs whenever possible) is to call in a complaint to the Oregon CCB.

The third thing you can do is to call in a complaint to the Multnomah County Lead Line (if your school is in Multnomah County).

The fourth thing you can do is to call in a complaint to the City of Portland Lead Hazard Control Program. This program may not be able to do anything to help you, but at least they will register that you called the city with a complaint.

The fifth thing you might want to consider doing is not sending your children to school in a potentially contaminated building. You really don’t want to risk their exposure to lead dust if you have a concern.  Plus, a spate of absences in protest of the school district not using lead safe work practices in renovation is sure to make an impact (in the news, PTA, your community!)

MOST IMPORTANT: Prior to sending your child to the school, demand to see the *clearance test results* for any post-work testing that was used to declare the space safe for use by children.  Clearance tests need to be done by an *independent third party hazard assessor*, NOT the contractor who did the renovation work.

It is always good to re-confirm with the facilities team that the contractor who oversaw the work did not also oversee the clearance testing! A school might say they “are doing clearance testing” — but you really need to see the report to make sure they have passed clearance *before* allowing children into the worksite (school building). On too many occasions I have seen situations where children were allowed into the location after clearance testing was done, but prior to the results being received – leading to the poisoning of those children.

If you need help interpreting your school’s clearance test, please contact me directly and I will review it with you.

Ideally, a passed clearance test will show dust lead (Pb) levels on floors and horizontal surfaces to be BELOW FIVE MICROGRAMS PER SQUARE FOOT. Anything above 5 (and definitely anything above 10 micrograms of lead dust per square foot) is a concern and should not be considered safe for children.

While the federal lead dust hazard level hovered at 40 micrograms per square foot for a long time, the National Center for Healthy Housing has recommended (for many years now) that the hazard level be lowered to 10 micrograms per square foot. Additionally, the scientific community has long held the consensus that levels need to be below 5 micrograms per square foot to actually be protective of children’s health.

Remember, it just takes a microscopic amount of lead dust to poison a child. As an example, an area the size of an entire football field could be contaminated with just a sugar packet’s worth of lead (Pb) dust — to a level that has been documented to be unsafe for children. A sugar packet’s worth of lead dust hypothetically spread evenly across a football field would create a lead dust level of about 38 micrograms per square foot! As a result, “normal cleaning” after potentially hazardous / unsafe renovation work is NOT ENOUGH to ensure that the school is safe for children.

As always, please let me know if you have any questions.

Please NEVER assume that the facilities team at PPS is on your side.

As you may recall, in 2016 the facilities director (Andy Fridley) was fired for his role in the school district’s intentional withholding of information from parents about lead hazards in the schools (lead hazards that I had been bringing to his attention since 2009.)

It is my understanding that members of the team that worked with this (fired) facilities director during his tenure (including independent contractors for the district) are STILL part of the PPS team on these projects — and I have personally experienced them attempting to cut corners in this work and would not trust their word on anything.

Thorough, independent third-party clearance testing is only way to ensure a safe environment for our children and our teachers.

Thank you for taking the time to help protect the children (and teachers) of our fair city!

Tamara Rubin
#LeadSafeMama


 

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