The paint chips would fall from the ceiling, making a mess on his desk.
Scared of getting in trouble, six-year-old Dean Pagan of Watson Comly Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia would eat them.
The effects from his subsequent lead poisoning was the central story in an explosive 2018 expose by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.
Now Dean’s family is suing the School District of Philadelphia and the city itself in federal court.
They claim the government “caused a public health crisis.”
The outcome of the lawsuit, if in favor of the Pagan family, may open up local governments to a wave of new litigation over claims of their negligence in providing safe learning environments for children.
At the state level, Pennsylvania is scrambling to provide funds to mitigate the massive problems of lead, asbestos, mold, bacteria, and vermin in its public schools.
As yet, however, there are no stringent legal means by which to address the problem.
Pennsylvania lead crisis
After the Flint, Michigan, lead-exposure case garnered international headlines, a Pennsylvania Department of Health study found that 18 cities in the state have much higher lead levels among children than in Flint.
In some cases over 20 percent of measured children were found to have elevated lead levels in the blood.
Most of this, it is believed, comes from lead water pipes and from lead paint dust flaking from pre-1970s buildings and entering the water supply.
In their 2018 investigation, the two Philly newspapers, facing some obfuscation from school officials, measured lead dust on surfaces in 14 schools and found astronomically high levels.
Ten samples came in above 470 micrograms per square foot, and the highest, a classroom floor, was at 9,800.
Given that the EPA deems hazardous 40 micrograms of lead dust per square foot of floor space, and 250 for windowsills, the Pennsylvania numbers are shocking.
Children in the state also face lead-exposure risks at home, given the state’s aging infrastructure and housing stock.
Urban — and statewide — neglect
In Philadelphia, schools with the greatest problems are in the most impoverished areas that serve predominantly black and Hispanic minority populations.
Some schools are so deteriorated that it would cost almost as much to remove their many health hazards as it would to build new schools.
Repairs, upgrades or replacements in Philadelphia alone would cost billions of dollars.
Yet only millions have been allotted for lead remediation statewide.
The state’s biggest effort is the “Lead-Free Pennsylvania” campaign.
Funds will go toward testing and education to address this massive, but preventable, public-health crisis.