Portland Family Prepares Suit Over Lead-Tainted School Water

Aug 15, 2016

Lead in Oregon's largest school district has forced out a superintendent, delayed a possible bond measure, and uncovered major management problems. And Portland Public Schools may have a legal fight on its hands soon. A family blames the district for their child’s health problems.

Trina Harper holds her daughter Abigail in summer 2016. Harper believes Portland Public Schools' handling of lead in drinking water may have caused health complications for Abigail.
Credit Rob Manning / OPB

As Trina Harper talks on a summer day at the mall, her daughter seems healthy and happy. Abigail turns a cartwheel. She whispers to her Mom.

Harper: “She wants to go shop at Target” (laughs)

Nine year-old Abigail likes school. She’s goes to Creston K-8, for its deaf and hard-of-hearing program.

Creston was one of the first schools found with high levels of lead in its drinking water.

Few children have elevated lead on blood tests. And Abigail’s levels were detectable but not high.

But Abigail has kidney disease. That means the Harpers have to watch Abigail’s blood pressure. Harper was alarmed by the aftermath of a recent surgery.

Trina Harper: “Her blood pressure had elevated to astronomical numbers for someone her size and age. That prompted like a big scare at the hospital.”

The hospital called in child protective services to investigate.

Trina Harper: “They considered it medical neglect at first, because they weren’t sure why this child isn’t being treated for blood pressure, and then after looking into it, and seeing that she had been looked at it before, only it had never been that crazy, the charge was unfounded and they dropped that case.”

For months, doctors ran tests and tried different treatments, because of the dangerous combination of high blood pressure and kidney disease.

Trina Harper: “In trying to figure out what was causing the high blood pressure, she’s been hospitalized multiple times – in December for an entire week, she was hospitalized.”

Then, at the end of May, Portland Public Schools announced high lead levels in several Creston water fixtures – including a bathroom sink in the hard-of-hearing area.

Trina Harper: “After all of this came to light on May 27th we researched it a little and called her doctors, and said ‘this is something that could be a possibility?’ Both urology and nephrology said ‘oh my gosh, tell me she’s not been drinking lead’.”

Dr. Joyce Lee at Randall Children’s Hospital has written on the Harpers’ behalf, warning that high – or prolonged - lead levels can damage kidneys. The study she cites says children with kidney disease – like Abigail – could be at greatest risk.

Zane Horowitz at Oregon Health and Science University acknowledges the connection – but downplays it, some.

Zane Horowitz: “Does lead in the long run cause additional kidney problems? Yes, over a lifetime of thirty years or more, it can lead to high blood pressure. For a child, that’s probably not an immediate issue.”

Portland Public Schools has declined to comment on Abigail’s case. Responses to the family emphasize changes the district is making, like providing water dispensers.

Perry Cabot with Multnomah County public health says drinking water is an unlikely cause of lead poisoning.

Perry Cabot: “Over the last three and a half years, we’ve done more than 180 investigations – and in none of those investigations have we found that water is the probable source of a child’s exposure.”

But Harper says she lives in a newer, lead-free home. Her older children – who attend a different district – didn’t have lead show up in their blood. Only Abigail.

Harper took her frustrations to a community meeting at Creston in June. She wanted administrators to share responsibility for Abigail’s high blood pressure.

Trina Harper: “How do I explain to her that the dozen times she’s been in the hospital this school year, or the six surgeries she’s had to bring these numbers down, were possibly not necessary because it wasn’t caused by her own physical issues, but possibly by the ingestion of lead.”

Harper has hired an attorney and is preparing to file a tort claim. She believes the school district didn’t protect her daughter from lead-tainted water, and she says given Abigail’s health history, the district should’ve known the risks.

Copyright OPB 2016.