School water seldom tested in urban Michigan districts

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Unhealthy levels of lead may be in the drinking water of Michigan’s urban public schools beyond Flint as a result of gaps in federal testing requirements that leave those facilities unprotected.

A Detroit News survey of the urban districts of Detroit, Lansing and Muskegon found that their school taps and drinking fountains are not tested regularly, if ever. The school and water system officials put the testing responsibility on each other.

Utilities across the state said they don’t test at schools unless education officials alert them to a problem. School officials said they don’t do their own testing to try to detect problems — instead relying on annual system-wide water quality reports from the local utility.

Under the federal law designed to protect the public from water contaminated by harmful metals, public schools are not regularly tested for lead. It means taps and drinking fountains can provide contaminated water for years without anyone knowing.

It’s a blind spot that cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia have been forced to grapple with.

“You would definitely find it in other schools (in Michigan) — not at all schools ...,” said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor specializing in environmental engineering whose testing work in Flint helped bring the city’s year-long water issues to light. “You’ll have some schools where every tap tests clean. But with schools, every tap has to pass.

“If you have a faucet in one kindergarten classroom, you have a captive group that’s drinking from that same tap all year.”

The gap in water quality testing was first identified earlier this month when the state found elevated levels of lead that exceeded the federal safety standard in the water at three Flint public schools. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality recommended then that the water in every school building around the state be tested.

State officials conducted additional tests in Flint schools this weekend as they set about creating a strategy for tackling the problem.

“We don’t yet have details on the plan to address schools, but the governor has said he wants a review of schools to be part of the state’s after-action task force review,” said Brad Wurfel, spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. “As he noted previously, it just makes sense to get this done — schools are where the kids are.”

Much of Flint’s lead problems have been blamed on the aged lead water lines and plumbing connecting homes to the city’s water system. City and state investigators believe lead contamination spiked starting in April 2014 when the system stopped drawing water from the Detroit system and began getting it from what proved to be a more corrosive source: the Flint River.

Problems with water quality could have been spotted if there were regular testing of water coming out of school and home taps before and after the switch to the Flint River. But that kind of testing isn’t done.

Water travels far after tests

Under the Environmental Protection Agency’s lead and copper rule, the last time water is regularly tested in large systems is right before it leaves the treatment plant. It means the water travels through miles of pipes and plumbing connections — many which may contain lead — before winding up in a drinking glass or cooking pot. Water also can sit stagnant in the lines for hours and days, soaking up lead while waiting to be used in a school or home.

Potential danger is heightened in schools, Edwards said, because most of them were built to accommodate large student bodies and usually were equipped with oversized plumbing connections that can hold larger amounts of water for a long time. The connections typically contain less-costly galvanized iron, brass pipes or lead solder.

“Imagine a school in summer — the water is sitting there in the system and the demand is something like one-hundredth of what it’s designed for,” Edwards said. “During that time, lead can accumulate.”

Children drinking such water are more susceptible to harm than others. According to the EPA, “Infants and children who drink water containing lead in excess of the action level could experience delays in their physical or mental development. Children could show slight deficits in attention span and learning abilities.”

It raises the question of who’s responsible for ensuring that the water kids use at school is healthy.

Detroit Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski, executive director of communication for Detroit Public Schools, confirmed that testing for lead in the water is not done regularly.

“Instead, we have tested for lead and bacteria based on a case-by-case basis when water quality was questioned,” she wrote in response to questions.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, the state’s largest water system, is designed to “identify systemwide problems, not individual buildings,” said spokesman Greg Eno.

Testing ensures the Detroit water system meets the parameters of the federal lead and copper rule, he said.

“The parameters are monitored at the treatment plants and within the DWSD distribution system twice per year,” Eno said. “Monitoring for these parameters ensures that the corrosion control treatment protective coating remains intact. In addition, DWSD regularly monitors lead and copper levels in residential plumbing once every three years.”

Lansing confident in service

The situation is similar in the Lansing School District, where a spokesman said he was unaware of any testing conducted at the schools.

“I’m not aware of (any Board of Water and Light) tests in the schools ...,” Bob Kolt said. “The school district doesn’t do any water quality testing after the water comes in from BWL at our schools. And we do have some old buildings here, too. So it’s a good question.”

The utility tests its water “multiple times a day, 365 days a year” at the treatment plant, said Stephen Serkaian, BWL’s spokesman.

“Only if a homeowner, business or school organization asks does the (Lansing Board of Water and Light) test the water inside those structures,” Serkaian said.

Lansing’s situation may be better than those in other metropolitan areas with old building stock. Since 2004, the utility has removed 14,000 lead service lines and replaced them with safer alternatives.

“We are very confident that BWL water distributed to all of our customers, including residential customers, commercial and educational organizations meet or exceed state and federal standards,” Serkaian said.

Muskegon relies on report

Jon Felske, superintendent of Muskegon Public Schools, said his district essentially relies on an annual report issued by the city’s water department.

Felske has followed the developments in Flint during the past two months with concern, particularly since “every building in our district” is more than 25 or 30 years old. Lead connections and plumbing fixtures with lead solder are likely in many buildings built before the mid-1980s.

“We produce 1,080,000 meals in our public schools each year,” Felske said. “Obviously, we’re using tap water to feed our children, let alone having them drink out of the water fountains.”

Congress passed the Lead and Copper Rule in 1991 in an effort to limit the amount of the harmful chemicals in public drinking water. But the law has proved ineffective in some cases.

A 2009 Associated Press report showed evidence of lead contamination at schools in all 50 states.

“There is just no excuse for this, period,” U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, said at the time.

But the EPA defends current water safety regulations. Federal officials said there are 7,300 schools and day care facilities nationwide that are not on public water supplies and have their own sources and so are subject to the lead and copper testing requirements.

Schools on public water systems are not.

“... There are public elementary, secondary schools and licensed child care facilities in the nation that are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act and therefore may not be conducting voluntary drinking water testing,” an EPA spokesman wrote in response to questions.

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