1/3 of Detroit elementary schools report unsafe lead, copper levels in water

© Eric Gaillard
Almost a third of elementary schools in Detroit, Michigan tested positive for unsafe levels of lead or copper – or both – in their water, prompting the city’s health chief to suggest that every child in the district get screened for exposure.

According to data released by Detroit Public Schools (DPS), 19 of the city’s 62 elementary schools featured lead or copper levels over the safety thresholds established by the Environmental Protection Agency, with officials pinpointing old infrastructure with lead pipes as the root cause of the problem.

Drinking fountains at the schools have been shut down and bottled water is being provided for the students.

Under EPA guidelines, if lead levels are found to be at least 15 parts per billion or copper levels at 1,300 parts per billion or more, then action is required to address the situation. Numbers aren’t available for all schools, but one facility had a drinking fountain that serviced water with lead levels at 1,500 parts per billion – 100 times higher than federal limits.

Another school had a drinking fountain that delivered lead levels of 280 parts per billion, or almost 19 times higher than EPA guidelines.

The results caused Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, who is in charge of the Detroit Health Department, to advise that all children in the city under six years of age get tested for lead poisoning, regardless of whether they attend DPS facilities, the Detroit Free Press reported. Now, DPS has about two weeks to create mitigation plans tailored to each school.

"The 15 [parts per billion] is the actionable limit," he told the newspaper. "But ideally, we want no lead in the water. The most important thing is to make sure that kids are no longer getting the water and that the kids themselves are getting tested."

When it comes to copper, the most extreme violation was at a school kitchen sink servicing water with levels of 3,400 parts per billion, about three times higher than EPA guidelines.

Over the next few weeks, DPS will analyze the water at its remaining middle and high schools for safety violations.

Testing for lead and copper levels in water has increased in Michigan and around the US since the crisis in Flint became a national story. There, officials failed to properly treat corrosive river water that flowed through the city’s lead pipes, becoming contaminated as it moved towards homes and exposing children to a poisoned drinking supply.

Lead is particularly dangerous for children and infants, as the neurotoxin can cause irreversible brain damage, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and more. Older children and adults that are exposed can also feel consequences, including hair loss, stomach and abdominal pain, headaches, and even miscarriage.

In Detroit, the water provided by the municipal system complies with all EPA regulations, however it still became contaminated at some schools. Officials believe that old lead pipes and other water fixtures made of lead are to blame, the Associated Press reported.

The issue is complicated by the fact that federal law does not require school systems to test their water if they are getting it from the municipal system. Detroit’s system, like those across the US, tests water at various locations but not necessarily in schools. About 90 percent of schools in the US don’t test their own water.

"It provides clear evidence that schools have to be proactive in finding and fixing these problems — it is not going to go away by itself," Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who helped uncover the crisis in Flint, told AP.

"Because the harm from lead is irreversible, finding and fixing lead in school problems is good news. The alternative is to do nothing and be willfully blind and allow even more harm to occur.”

Following the disaster in Flint, DPS began voluntarily testing its water for lead and copper using a city grant as well as cash from its own budget.

“The District has an obligation to ensure that our students and staff can focus all of their attention on what is most important – improved academic achievement. Proactively screening the water in our schools will help everyone stay focused on this goal,” said DPS Transition Manager Judge Steven Rhodes in a statement.

The water issues add to a long list of problems DPS is struggling to cope with. A debt of $500 million had the district facing the possibility of shutting down all of its schools in April until Governor Rick Snyder (R-Michigan) signed a law delivering almost $49 million to keep facilities open for the rest of the school year.

Despite being placed under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, the situation has not improved, with many parents enrolling their students elsewhere if given the opportunity. The DPS school board recently filed a lawsuit against Snyder and the state over the poor conditions. Teachers have also engaged in mass demonstrations, calling in sick and effectively shutting down schools over what they call unsafe teaching environments.

On top of these problems, the federal government in March hit 12 current and former DPS principals with bribery and conspiracy charges, accusing them of engaging in a scheme to score kickbacks from school supplies that were rarely, if ever, delivered.