Joshua Lott / Reuters

Ohio village schools reopen amid controversy over lead contamination

Residents angry after learning state, city officials have known about problems with drinking water since September

Schools that were shut down in Sebring, Ohio, for three days over lead contamination in the water reopened on Wednesday, as details emerged showing city and state officials have known about the community’s water safety problems for months but failed to alert residents.

Two water fountains at two separate schools in the Sebring school district had lead levels higher than what EPA standards allow, and several homes also showed similarly high levels when tested last summer, according to the Ohio EPA. Exposure to lead contamination can cause brain damage and impair development, especially in children.

The water troubles in Sebring, a small town about 60 miles northeast of Cleveland, follow a separate case of lead poisoning in Flint, Mich. — a city of 100,000 where drinking water was contaminated from April 2014 until residents were issued a lead warning by the city in September 2015. Michigan officials ignored residents’ complaints for months, and the EPA knew there was a problem with Flint's water as early as April 2015 but didn't act for months.

Ohio’s EPA said it had headed off the same type of disaster Flint was experiencing by revoking the license of the water treatment operator in Sebring, the Guardian reported Wednesday.

Critics say that, as in Flint, officials in Ohio acted too late. Sebring residents were told of the problem on Jan. 21, but the Ohio EPA and city officials have known of the issue at least since September 2015, when seven of 20 homes tested in the town showed elevated levels of lead in the water. The Ohio EPA said the water system manager that supplied Sebring failed to notify the public within the required 60 days.

Sebring Village Manager Richard Giroux said Tuesday he didn’t know about the problem until last week, but the Ohio EPA released correspondence showing he was informed in December.

Giroux and the Ohio EPA did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Sebring residents expressed anger and frustration at a packed council meeting on Monday night, local media reported.

“A lot of us have kids at home, we’re extremely afraid, and we need a mayor to stand up and be honest with us, hold people accountable and fix this problem,” one resident said at the meeting, according to Cleveland Fox 8.

Residents have been forced to use bottled water for their daily needs since learning of the lead contamination.

“I’m supposed to heat up bottled water to wash our clothes and our laundry and bathe them … I mean who’s got time for that?” another resident told Fox 8.

The water restrictions have already been taking a toll on local businesses, residents said.

At Sebring’s Royal Star Diner, owner Mark Hughes and his wife Shirleen told The Review, a local newspaper, that business had decreased about 30 to 40 percent since the announcement about the water.

There are also concerns about the long-term effects on children who were exposed to the contaminated water. In Flint, tests showed that children under five years old had blood lead levels that had doubled, and in some cases tripled, since the poisoning began.

Lead levels in Flint and Sebring respectively were 27 and 21 parts per billion, while the acceptable level under federal standards is 15 parts per billion. No safe blood lead level in children has been identified, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said on its website. Even low levels can affect IQ, and its effects are irreversible.

The poisoning of Flint has spurred critics to call for Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder’s resignation, while others have called for his arrest.

With wire services

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