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Detroit public schools’ drinking water shut down amid lead fears

The 50,000 students returning to public school classrooms in Detroit on Tuesday following the summer break will find the drinking fountains dry, after elevated levels of lead and copper forced the district to shut off the water supply.

After test results evaluating all water sources, from sinks to fountains, for 16 schools showed higher than acceptable levels of the chemicals last month, the Detroit public schools community district announced it was turning off the water at all its schools.

The district superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, cited safety concerns for staff and students.

“I am turning off all drinking water in our schools until a deeper and broad analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions,” he said.

Bottled water and coolers will be provided so that thirst does not go unquenched.

But the news about testing for toxic water is just the latest risk and indignity to be endured by the teachers and children in a district infamous for its “crumbling” public schools.

The latest results come on the heels of previous tests from 2016 and spring 2018 that revealed elevated copper and lead levels, bringing the total number of schools with water quality issues to 34 out of the 106 Detroit currently operates.

Vitti, who became superintendent in 2016, inherited a district that had been under emergency management for almost a decade. In an interview last Friday, he pointed out to the Guardian that the decision was a preventive health measure.

“If you only turn those [34] water sources off, and then you wait and something happens, how do you tell a parent, ‘I was waiting for the next round of tests’?” he said. “It would be like playing a game of whack-a-mole. That doesn’t make sense for ensuring the safety of children.”

The shutdown of water fountains doesn’t apply to charter schools, but Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, intends to initiate “the same level” of water quality testing at those schools, Vitti said.

While drinking water is only one of multiple potential sources of lead contamination in the environment, young children are especially vulnerable to irreversible developmental damage because they absorb four to five times as much ingested lead as adults, according to the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, copper poisoning causes vomiting and gastrointestinal issues, among other problems.

Water testing in schools is currently not required by federal law or Michigan state law. However, a bill that would require lead testing in water is currently being considered in the state legislature.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers, the local arm of the American Federation of Teachers union, supported the superintendent’s decision. The DFT president, Ivy Bailey, said that the district needed to develop a plan addressing test results, including using rainy day funds for repairs.

She said she was told the problem wasn’t systemic but related to older plumbing in the fountains specifically. “It’s not the pipes in the buildings,” she said during a local briefing.

The Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit water and sewerage department released a statement assuring Detroit residents they were not affected, indicating that the water passed all federal and state Safe Drinking Water Act regulations.

Older drinking water fountains are “a known source of lead exposure”, said Stuart Batterman, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.

Such water fountains were connected to a system with copper parts, fused together with lead, Batterman said.

“That leaches out, dissolves into the water and the kids get that first flush, especially early in the morning when no one has used it,” he said.

Detroit public schools have suffered from years of underfunding.

Vitti said: “The infrastructure of the public school system has been neglected, and this is an example of it.In five years, the cost ends up being $1.3 billion.”

Misha Stallworth, a Detroit school board member, said needs were great.

“After 10 years of emergency management, there is a lot of work to be done, across, let’s say, 90% of our school buildings to get ceiling tiles, basic heating and cooling,” she said. “That’s a big challenge that we’re faced with in terms of trying to identify opportunities for the state to support us or the private sector to offer their support.”

Problems with lead are not restricted to Detroit schools, which make up the largest district in the state of Michigan.

It took a pediatrician’s test results showing the alarming spikes in lead levels in the blood of children in Flint, Michigan, to finally bring that particular scandal to national attention in 2015.

That prompted testing in schools across the country.

But in 2017, a Government Accountability Office survey found that only 43% of school districts, with 35 million students, had conducted tests in the preceding 12 months. About third of those districts found elevated lead levels and took action to reduce them.

This year, lead was found in school drinking water in Virginia, Texas and Chicago, according to news reports.

“This is not a new problem,” said Batterman, adding that it had been a known issue since the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, which requires public water suppliers to monitor drinking water for lead.

He warned: “Basically, it has not progressed for 20 or 30 years. We are just not making headway.”

Source of this (above) article: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/04/detroit-public-schools-drinking-water-lead

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