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Lead in Water: Why It Goes Undetected in Many Schools

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lead in school drinking water, detroit

The Detroit school district made national news when it announced plans to shut down every school drinking fountain after tests detected heightened levels of lead and copper in some water sources.

Lead, the most common contaminant in school drinking water, can affect brain functioning and child development.

It's more common in schools with aging facilities. And it's a concern that's particularly acute in Michigan, where elevated levels of lead in Flint's city water supply led to lead in children's bloodstreams, creating a public health crisis.

But the testing Detroit used to detect that lead is not mandated in many places, which means some schools may not be aware of concerns with their water supplies.

The Government Accountability Office surveyed a nationally representative sample of 549 school districts nationwide in 2017. In that survey, only 43 percent of schools reported testing their drinking water for lead within the last year. Among those districts, 37 percent found elevated levels of lead, according to the survey, released in July.

"Despite no requirement to test our water at the federal, state, or local level, we initiated water testing at all of our schools and all of our water sources, including drinking fountains and sinks," Detroit Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti wrote in a letter to parents. "I want to be clear, most districts and schools throughout the country, state, and the city do not perform this level of review. We did this because it was the right thing to do for our students and staff."

Tests found "isolated (i.e. not every water source) elevations of copper and/or lead" in 34 schools, Vitti wrote. The district opted to shut off drinking fountains at all schools and to provide water in bottles and coolers as a precautionary measure until testing is complete.

Water can seep into schools' drinking water as plumbing ages. This is of particular concern for schools built before 1986, when Congress banned the use of lead pipes. And, like all school facilities issues, replacing those pipes can create financial and logistical concerns.

Most schools in the Baltimore City district, for example, have had their water fountains shut off for more than 10 years. Baltimore schools that don't have air conditioning have also closed early because of excessive heat during the first week of school, and state and local officials have tossed around blame as they argue about who should address school facilities issues there.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed a law in 2017 requiring all public and private schools to conduct lead testing. 

To comply with that law, Maryland's largest district, Montgomery County, tested 13,248 water fixtures in 208 schools. The district determined that about 153 water fixtures had levels of lead beyond the 20 parts per billion "action level" designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, officials said in a notice to families. Those fixtures will be disabled until problems can be remedied. A few other Maryland districts have taken similar actions as schools open for 2018-19.

Increased attention to lead in schools started after Flint officials first learned of lead in their city's water in 2014. 

The discovery of lead in Portland, Ore., school water, for example, led that district to shut off drinking fountains for two years and to explore how its deferred maintenance contributed to other safety concerns, like "fires, radon, asbestos and earthquakes," the Portland Oregonian reports.

The GAO found that at least seven states and the District of Columbia had varying requirements that schools test for lead in drinking water in 2017. Those states are California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and D.C. And 13 states offer some support for schools to perform voluntary testing, the report said.

Photo: A student gets water from a cooler in the hallway at Gardner Elementary School in Detroit on Sept. 4. Some 50,000 Detroit public school students will start the school year by drinking water from coolers, not fountains, after the discovery of elevated levels of lead or copper in some school water sources. -Paul Sancya/AP


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