Buena Vista Horace Mann school
Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 on the first day of school. Photo taken by Annika Hom, Aug. 16, 2021.

Following weeks of testing, none of the students and staff at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 appear to have dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

The Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 community demanded free lead testing after discovering higher than acceptable levels of lead in three of the school’s water fountains and in the community garden last December.

“We are very, very happy that almost everybody who has tested has gotten results back that are within the acceptable realm,” Buena Vista principal Claudia DeLarios Morán said. “It was a tremendous success, as many people have gotten tested.”

Out of more than 150 total tests taken by students, alumni, and staff, it appears only one teacher, Debby Rosenthal Harris, received results that triggered  a phone call from the city health department. 

“It seems like I am one of the only people that [tested] high for lead,” Rosenthal Harris said. 

The third grade teacher had 3.8 micrograms of lead per deciliter; to her understanding, the health department called those who tested above 3.4 micrograms per deciliter. 

While that lead level is considered elevated for a child, it’s much lower than the problematic lead threshold for adults. According to the University of California, San Francisco, adults with 10 or more micrograms of lead per deciliter have “elevated” lead levels, and only at 80 micrograms of lead per deciliter is treatment recommended.

“If I had tested at 10 or 11 I would be more concerned, or make more of a deal of it,” Rosenthal Harris said. “That being said, I think it’s ridiculous. This situation is deplorable to begin with. I’m supporting any movement that helps us get cleaner water or the renovation quicker.” 

Two months after the lead discovery, Rosenthal Harris and other teachers said, faculty and students are still scared to drink the tap water. The school district shut off the unacceptable water outlets and cordoned off the garden, and faculty and students have been drinking potable water brought by the district, their families and volunteers. 

During the approximately eight years Rosenthal Harris taught at Buena Vista, she enjoyed afternoon tea that she made using boiled school water. After her recent lead results, she learned from the school nurse that boiling water doesn’t protect against lead contamination.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, “boiling water does not reduce lead levels and may actually increase them.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees that boiling is ineffective to reduce lead. 

“The fact I boiled tea for the last nine years might be the reason. I didn’t realize,” Rosenthal Harris said. She plans on taking another test in a few weeks. 

Multiple factors could have contributed to Rosenthal Harris’s lead levels, including environmental factors, or her home, though the teacher said she doubts she was exposed elsewhere. “It’s hard to prove,” Rosenthal Harris said. “I’m happy to test my place or pipes.” 

“My understanding is that there are people who came back with a higher level of lead that we want to see, but you can’t necessarily attribute that to any particular cause,” DeLarios Morán said. 

No other staff at Buena Vista appeared to have dangerous levels. Staff concluded this because no one besides Rosenthal Harris received a health department phone call. 

“No call is good,” said Salu Ribeiro, the founder of the phlebotomy lab BayPLS which is conducting the lead testing.

Todd Albert, a science teacher at Buena Vista Horace Mann who also used school water to make coffee for seven years, “fortunately did not test positive for heavy metal poisoning,” he wrote in a text to Mission Local. 

“I am glad they came to the school and provided tests. Now I am hoping that they can fix the two sinks [in] my science classroom that are offline because of high levels of lead,” he said. Albert wants the students to be able to wash their hands after a lesson where “we dissect cow eyes.” 

BayPLS is conducting free lead tests thanks to community groups like the Latino Task Force, and Supervisor Hillary Ronen. BayPLS will extend lead testing to the Buena Vista community through the end of February. 

Ribeiro would not share the results with Mission Local and redirected questions to the school district. 

School district spokesperson Laura Dudnick did not share results with Mission Local. “Blood lead level results are shared directly with participants,” Dudnick wrote. “The Mission Neighborhood Health Center is providing follow-up support to help people understand test results.” 

The district also notified Buena Vista alumni and former staff about lead testing opportunities, Dudnick said in an email.  

DeLarios Morán acknowledged questions and community demands to turn the water and garden back online remain, but she said she’s feeling good about the relationship between the district and the school. 

“The district has done a lot to communicate regularly since these events,” DeLarios Morán said. “This process has taught us a lot about how important it is to maintain strong communication between the users of the building and the people in charge of keeping it up.”

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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