Last week, when Detroit Public Schools Community District announced it was shutting off water fountains after finding lead and copper in water at 16 schools, a wave of fear spread across Michigan.
The question from parents is a palpable one in a state still reeling from the Flint water crisis: Is the drinking water in my kids’ school safe?
The answer, typically: Nobody knows.
Because even after lead was found in water in schools in Flint, Detroit, Southfield and traces were found in River Rouge since the Flint water crisis erupted in 2016, Michigan does not require schools to test water for lead or other contaminants.
Nor does the federal government.
Exposure to lead can irreversibly damage brain and nervous system development, particularly in young children.
To be clear, no level of lead in water is safe. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says sporadic “exposure to lead-contaminated water alone” is unlikely to elevate blood lead levels to dangerous levels but cautions the risk varies by individual.
And educators don’t want to take chances.
“This is and should be about kids and safe drinking water,” said Don Wotruba, executive director for the Michigan Association of School Boards.
“This is a statewide policy conversation on infrastructure in our municipalities and our school districts that the Legislature in large parts is not willing to take on.
Volunteers from Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity join principal Orlando Bogins in welcoming students to the first day of school at Golightly Education Center this week. The 400-plus students and staff must drink bottled water indefinitely. (Bridge Magazine photo by Chastity Pratt Dawsey)
Two years after Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Quality Advisory Task Force in 2016 recommended that all water be tested regularly at Michigan schools and childcare centers, no new policy is in place.
A package of bills that would require schools to test water for lead and contaminants has stalled in the Legislature for more than a year and may continue to languish despite bipartisan support.
The bills would require testing at public and nonpublic schools, colleges, child care centers, hospitals and veterans centers.
The Legislature returned this week from summer break, but will be in session only seven days before the Nov. 6 election.
State Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, sponsor for one of the bills, said he was not sure if the bills would get a hearing or a vote.
“What happened in Detroit Public Schools is terrible, but it’s good that they caught it,” Zemke said. “I think there is a very large problem here (in Michigan).”
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State Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
Some schools, like DPSCD, voluntarily test water for lead but there are no standards or reporting requirements in Michigan. Nor does the state keep records on which schools voluntarily test water.
Nationwide, at least eight states have adopted laws to require schools test water for contaminants.
Less than an hour into the first day of school, the water cooler near the main office at Golightly Education Center in Detroit was three-quarters empty. The district set aside $200,000 for bottled water for its 100 school buildings for the next two months after water at 16 schools turned up high lead and copper levels. (Bridge photo by Chastity Pratt Dawsey)
About 41 percent of school districts serving a total of 12 million students did not test for lead in 2016 or 2017, according to a report released in July by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Michigan’s 2017 state budget set aside $4.3 million for schools to test for lead, but not all of the money was used or requested by school districts. It is unclear if all districts knew the money was available, Wotruba said.
David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan union, said the testing should be mandated and funded by the state.
But he said he doubts the bills will get a vote and suggested there would be more urgency if the schools found to have lead contamination were in richer areas.
“Bet your bottom dollar, if what we’re finding in a large sample of schools in Detroit had happened perhaps in other communities that look different, perhaps things would get more attention. Just perhaps,” he said.
Nikolai Vitti, superintendent for DPSCD, decided to shut down drinking fountains at all of the nearly 100 school buildings because he was baffled by test results in 24 schools over the summer, said Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for the school system.
Sixteen of the tested schools had elevated levels of lead and copper. A few of the buildings were fairly new construction including Renaissance High and Cass Technical High, both of which were built a little more than a decade ago.
The Great Lakes Water Authority, which provides water to DPSCD schools, released a statement saying the lead levels in the schools are related to infrastructure in the buildings, not the quality of the water being pumped in.
The water authority said it had no lead service lines connected to DPSCD school buildings.
Detroit still has lead service lines that it is replacing. But pipes leading to schools are made of cast iron because they are larger and handle greater volumes of water, said Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for Detroit’s water department.
Soldering on pipes or lead particle build-up in faucets or taps could result in lead leaching into water, said Jerome Nriagu, professor emeritus of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan. Regular testing is needed not only in schools in Detroit, but statewide, regardless of the costs, he said.
“It’s absolutely important,” he said. “These are young children. The cost is quite small compared to the cost of just one child getting exposed.”
Water fountains in all 100 buildings in Detroit Public Schools Community District are shut down indefinitely until officials find and fix water contamination problems. (Bridge Magazine photo by Samana Sheikh)
While lead contaminated water is worrisome, is not the most common way that children are exposed to lead.
Lead-based paint in homes built before 1978 and lead residue in soil cause more damage. A 1998-2000 study estimated that 38 million homes in the United States had lead-based paint and 24 million had “significant lead-based hazards.”
In Michigan, elevated blood lead levels among children are inching upward after decades of decline. Last year, Bridge Magazine reported that some of the blame in Detroit could be due to an aggressive building demolition campaign that clouds of lead particulates into the air.
Citywide, 8.8 percent of kids tested positive for elevated lead levels in 2016. That’s four times higher than kids in Genesee County, the home to Flint, where 1.8 percent had high lead levels.
In the week after Detroit schools announced it was closing the tap to fountains, some traditional public, private and charter schools immediately contacted parents to stave off worry about kids’ drinking water.
Bradford Academy in Southfield boasted about its new water fountains and test results on its website on the first day of school. The superintendent of University Preparatory Academy schools in Detroit was hit with a cease and desist letter last week from DPSCD after he recorded a message to parents saying Uprep’s water is clean, unlike the city’s public district.
DPSCD has set aside $200,000 to provide bottled water and water coolers in all its schools as further water studies take place districtwide, Wilson said.
Vitti will set up a task force to study the problem and next steps.
Parents and students who started school this week were glad to see the bottled water but worried how long the situation would persist. Detroit wouldn’t be the first school system to use bottled water indefinitely. In Baltimore, schools have used bottled water for more than a decade.
“I drank out of the water fountain before and now I’m concerned that I drank something bad for me,” Kennedy Barnes, a student at Renaissance High, one of Detroit’s newer school facilities and where the level of contaminants found in the water was high this summer.
Kayla Jones, a senior at Renaissance, called the test results “alarming.”
“I used to drink out of the water fountain and my mom and I conversed about it and I was alarmed and it was nerve wracking. It needs to be fixed for us to be safe. I’m honestly scared,” she said.
“I just hope and pray for the best and hope this gets fixed soon.”
That was common refrain on the first day of school.
“I’m not going to lie, I’m concerned,” Zachary Johnson, who has three children attending Golightly Education Center. And I’m praying this will be fixed right away.”
Vitti said there’s no evidence children have been impacted and stressed he acted out of an “abundance of caution.”