Off Beat

Got the Lead Out?

Parents In Community Action (PICA), the nonprofit agency that operates the Head Start program in Hennepin County, either has a lead problem or needs to take a communications course.

On April 18, the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery moved out of the McKnight Early Childhood Family Development Center at 4225 Third Ave. S. after laboratory analysis showed that there was too much lead in the building's water--double the maximum contaminant level set by the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Act. (The Crisis Nursery hired Spectrum Labs in St. Paul to conduct tests after staffers noticed discoloration in the water.)

According to Crisis Nursery spokesperson Barbara Kompelien, PICA (owners of the building since 1988) hired a different company to conduct water tests, and one of four samples came back with an unacceptable level of lead. When PICA suggested that the Crisis Nursery use bottled water, Douglas Carter, the nursery's executive director, said no. PICA eventually agreed to replace all the fixtures in the building, then submit to another battery of tests. When Carter tried to get a status update, however, there was no response; the Crisis Nursery's board of directors decided to terminate their lease in June.

When City Pages visited the McKnight Center last month, it was occupied by hundreds of preschool-age children attending Head Start classes. Jean Herron, the director of the facility, said that PICA had "replaced a few fixtures" in the building, and that the water quality was now "fine." She then claimed that Judith Baker, PICA's director of operations, would vouch for the water's quality. But over the next three weeks, on six separate occasions, Baker failed to return calls for comment. Efforts to contact other Head Start personnel, including executive director Alyce Dillon, were similarly rebuffed.

According to a brochure put out by the Minnesota Department of Health, the ingestion of lead has been associated with impaired physical and mental development, hearing problems, and damage to the brain, nervous system, red blood cells, and kidneys. Dave Hokanson, who works in the Section of Drinking Water Protection at the Minnesota Department of Health, says the state recommends but does not require testing if levels of lead in the water exceed EPA standards. "But obviously, you want to be careful, especially if young children are involved," he says, adding that although changing the fixtures is one potential remedy for removing lead, it is far from foolproof. "Some new fixtures may actually increase lead levels. You don't know unless you test for it."

Right now, only PICA Head Start knows whether they have done the additional testing or solved the problem. And they're not telling.