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St. Louis NAACP Threatens Lawsuit Over Lead Contamination At Juvenile Detention Center

The Juvenile Detention Center in St. Louis on July 20, 2020.
Eli Chen
St. Louis Public Radio
City water division officials found high levels of lead and copper in bathrooms at the Juvenile Detention Center.

Updated 9:40 a.m. with a statement from city officials. 

The St. Louis NAACP is considering a federal civil rights lawsuit to force St. Louis officials to remove lead contamination at the Juvenile Detention Center. 

The NAACP disclosed findings Monday from city water division officials that showed high levels of lead and copper from bathroom sinks at the correctional facility. City documents indicate that the contamination likely came from stagnant water in lead and copper pipes. 

City officials recommended that the correctional facility flush its water systems to address stagnation. But the city needs to do more to address contamination, said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis NAACP. 

“I’m not sure that the city has done all it could do,” Pruitt said. “And we’re definitely not sure that this stagnant water is the only cause of any environmental problems for these kids.” 

Pruitt also said the NAACP is weighing a lawsuit to compel city officials to reduce lead dust released by recent demolitions in north St. Louis. 

Exposure to high levels of lead can damage children’s brains and other organs. Pruitt said a lawsuit could uncover whether lead contamination in bathrooms has harmed children at the correctional facility. The group has not hired lawyers yet to file suit against the city in either matter.

City Counselor Julian Bush responded earlier this month to an inquiry the St. Louis NAACP made regarding lead contamination at the correctional facility, according to a city spokesperson. Bush wrote that the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court, which operates the Juvenile Detention Center, closed and remediated problematic fixtures. 

"Still, given our concern for the health and welfare of those who work and occupy the Juvenile Detention Center and the serious issues raised by the NAACP, the City's Water Division will conduct additional testing at the facility," a city spokesperson said in an email. 

City officials plan to conduct water testing Tuesday. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no safe level of exposure to lead. If lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion, the federal agency requires public water systems to take action to remove contamination. 

The NAACP chapter obtained the water test results through the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center. The law firm is skeptical that the contamination was caused by water stagnation.

“While the EPA does suggest that all schools should flush their water systems after there has been a period of stagnation, this is not applicable to water sampling. ... They do not suggest flushing the water system before a sampling period because that can cause inaccurate results,” the center said in its report. 

The Great Rivers Environmental Law Center could not comment on the Juvenile Detention Center’s lead contamination without permission from its client.  

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.