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High metal levels cause water to be shut off at DPSCD schools

Nikolai Vitti

Water officials blamed aging infrastructure as the reason behind the decision to turn off drinking water at all Detroit Public Schools Community District schools less than a week before the start of the school year.

DPSCD superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the district made the dramatic move after initial testing results for 16 schools from earlier this year showed higher than acceptable levels for copper and/or lead at one or more water sources. The district didn't release the data returned from the testing on Wednesday.

Vitti said "out of an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of our students and employees, I am turning off all drinking water in our schools until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools."

During the indefinite shutoff, the district will have bottled water provided by the Great Lakes Water Authority that will be distributed by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

"I immediately turned off the drinking water at those schools and provided water bottles until water coolers arrive,"  Vitti said in a statement.

Water at the 16 affected schools was shut off Tuesday. An additional 18 DPSCD schools already had their water shut off due to quality concerns, Vitti said, bringing the initial shut off to 34 schools.

Shutoffs at the remaining schools will occur this week, according to Vitti. Staff and families were informed of the decision on Tuesday via robocalls.

PSCD spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said Vitti on Wednesday asked Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder to convene a task force of engineers and water experts to determine the cause of the elevated lead and copper levels, and to propose solutions. 

"The water will be turned off in all the schools until we find a solution for all schools," Wilson said.

Buildings with elevations in lead/copper detected

  • Academy of the Americas Elementary-Middle School
  • Adult Education - East
  • Bates Academy
  • Bennett Elementary-Middle School
  • Cass Technical High School
  • Roberto Clemente Elementary
  • Clippert Elementary Middle School
  • Coleman Young Elementary School
  • Davis Aerospace at Golightly
  • Dixon Academy
  • Foreign Language Immersion
  • Hutchinson at Howe
  • Keidan
  • Noble Elementary-Middle School
  • Marcus Garvey
  • Renaissance High School

Water officials released a statement Wednesday assuring residents and customers of the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues at the school district. 

"Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water," water officials said in their statement. "... The water at GLWA’s treatment plants is tested hourly, and DWSD has no lead service lines connected to any DPSCD building. The drinking water is of unquestionable quality."

Vitti said he had initiated water testing of all 106 school buildings during the spring to ensure the safety of students and employees. The testing evaluated all water sources from sinks to drinking fountains.

Concerns that the infrastructure could be to blame for the water quality issues come amid widespread building condition problems. In June, the district released a report that showed it would cost $500 million to repair its buildings.

About 25 percent of the school buildings are in unsatisfactory condition and another 20 percent are in poor condition, according to the report.

The district noted nearly $223 million of high-priority repairs involving elevators and lifts, energy supply, heating and cooling systems, sprinklers, standpipes, electrical service and distribution, lighting, wiring, communications, security system, local area networking, public address and intercoms, emergency lights and plumbing fixtures.

Duggan's office and the Detroit Health Department issued a joint statement Wednesday, saying they supported the "approach Dr. Vitti has taken to test all water sources within DPS schools and to provide bottled water until the district can implement a plan to ensure that all water is safe for use.

"We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done. We also will be reaching out to our charter operators in the coming days to work with them on a possible similar testing strategy to the voluntary one Dr. Vitti has implemented."

Bottled water

A total of 34 schools already are on a bottled water plan with others to follow, according to district officials. They are:

  1. Ben Carson
  2. Breithaupt
  3. Bunche
  4. Detroit Collegiate Preparatory
  5. Edison Elementary School
  6. John R. King Academy
  7. Moses Field
  8. Thirkell Elementary School
  9. Thurgood Marshall
  10. Wayne Elementary School
  11. Burton International
  12. Bow Elementary-Middle School
  13. Carstens Elementary-Middle School
  14. Carver STEM
  15. Clark Elementary-Middle School
  16. Detroit Lions Academy
  17. Sampson-Webber Academy 
  18. Spain Elementary-Middle School
  19. Academy of the Americas Elementary-Middle School
  20. Adult Education- East
  21. Bates Academy
  22. Bennett Elementary-Middle School
  23. Cass Technical High School
  24. Roberto Clemente Elementary
  25. Clippert Elementary Middle School
  26. Coleman Young Elementary School
  27. Davis Aerospace at Golightly
  28. Dixon Academy
  29. Foreign Language Immersion
  30. Hutchinson at Howe
  31. Keidan 
  32. Noble Elementary-Middle School 
  33. Marcus Garvey
  34. Renaissance High School

In 2016, King High School was among 15 district school buildings that tested positive for high lead levels. In one building, a drinking fountain recorded 100 times the allowable limit. The district collected its own samples, and the results were reviewed by the Detroit Health Department.

In February 2017, the district said drinking water in all 94 of its public schools fell within federal guidelines for lead and copper following environmental treatments at 10 buildings.

The district said it installed water treatment systems in those buildings in 2016 that brought its water within federal guidelines.

In July 2017, district officials said testing in March showed the water was safe to drink across the district. A lab report testing copper and lead dated March 22 listed 10 samples from King as “acceptable.”

Lead exposure can cause learning and behavior problems in children, while high levels of copper can cause vomiting, gastrointestinal issues and other health problems. The metals can enter the water of older homes or buildings that have lead or copper plumbing, or that are connected to the public water system with lead or copper service lines.

Water systems are required to take additional action to control erosion if lead concentrations exceed an action level of 15 parts per billion, or copper concentrations exceed an action level of 1.3 parts per million, in more than 10 percent of taps sampled.

Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is leading the state's response to the water problems at Detroit schools.

Michigan has no rules that require school districts to test for lead in their water supply, according to the MDEQ.  

"The department is contacting the school system to offer assistance and will also work with their water supply," MDEQ spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Wednesday.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech environmental scientist who helped uncover lead in Flint's water system in 2014, noted other states, such as New York, have adopted new requirements for lead testing in schools. Massachusetts recently finished a massive lead in school water sampling program, he said.

"Sampling in July or August will always find much more lead, than sampling in a cooler month when school is in session," Edwards said. "That is not to downplay the problem, because the sampling results do indicate taps that could be problematic, and might need remediation."

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint whistleblower whose research helped expose the lead contamination crisis in the city's water, applauded Vitti for taking action and added: “I am not surprised by the news from Detroit schools."

"The national rules about lead in water are a disgrace," she said. "They are particularly disgraceful in the places that are most important, in our schools and day care centers.

"... Kids are in school to learn, not to be poisoned by lead."