Bottled water among school supplies for Detroit, Flint kids

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Adrian Nealy, left, gets his books and bottled water ready for school with his brother Rico, 3, and sister Cassidy, 4.  Detroit Public Schools Community District has alerted parents that only bottled water is available in the district until further notice.

Schoolchildren in Detroit and Flint are carrying more than pencils, notebooks and lunches to their first day of school on Tuesday; they are packing bottled water.

Both school districts, Detroit Public Schools Community District and Flint Community Schools, have turned off drinking water inside school buildings in response to water-quality concerns.

In Detroit, the decision was made Aug. 28 to close the taps after 16 schools showed higher than acceptable levels for copper and/or lead. In Flint, where drinking taps were turned off in October 2015, water again is being provided this school year through January as water testing continues.

Parents who are concerned about the ability of both districts to provide drinking water — for 50,000 students in 106 Detroit schools and for 4,500 students in 13 Flint schools — say they are not taking chances this week as temperatures hover near 90 on the first day of school.

Detroit parent Bianca Nealy said bottled water will be going Tuesday with her two children who attend Pasteur Elementary School.

"It's a sad situation. I don’t want my kids drinking the water. I don’t want no children drinking the water. We have to be accountable," Nealy said.

Adrian Nealy, left, gets his books and bottled water ready for school with his brother Rico, 3, and sister Cassidy, 4.  Detroit Public Schools Community District has alerted parents that only bottled water is available in the district until further notice.

As president of the school's Parent Teacher Association, Nealy said she is considering a fundraiser to buy water for the school. She plans to walk inside school on Tuesday to confirm drinking fountains are marked off limits or are shut off. Pasteur was not one of the 16 schools on the test list.

"My plan is to go inside Tuesday and see what is going on and how they plan to do all of this. Because I don’t want any children to make a mistake," Nealy said.

At Flint Community Schools, parent Ariana Hawk said she is packing multiple bottles of water inside the backpacks of both of her sons for the first day of school.

Hawk said the district told parents last year not to send refillable bottles for water or bottled water to school because "they are disruptive" and because the district provides water. Students used a water pass, which Hawk said allowed them to drink water in between classes.

"Last year they had a water cooler. Once it was gone for the day, it was gone for the day. So my son would come home thirsty," Hawk said. "It makes it difficult when you can’t get up and go get a drink. They kids are maybe getting 3-4 sips ... a day.

"I see that Detroit is going through the same thing. No child should have to worry about it," Hawk said. "I put two frozen ones and one non-frozen one in his bag so he can drink when he walks home or after he plays basketball."

Testing continues

During the indefinite shutoff at Detroit schools, bottled water will be provided and distributed by the district, officials said.

Reports posted by the city of Detroit for testing done at Detroit schools can be viewed here. The reports provide locations of tests inside the school, the result for lead and copper, and recommendations that include removing fixtures, flushing lines and implementing plans under state water rules.

Local and national teacher union officials said Friday they they are working to get water, coolers and hand sanitizers to the schools for the first day of class.

"Our union could not stand idly by," said Terrence Martin Sr., Detroit Federation of Teachers executive vice president. "We have been battling these conditions for years. They are not new. This is on the state’s hands. We had to ensure that our students and staff have the supplies they need to perform as best they can under these sub-par conditions." 

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said on Friday the water being delivered to schools is through Absopure. He did not provide further details on how much water is being provided per child per day.

"Water will be delivered to schools based on the number of students/staff at the school. The principals whose schools used water coolers last year reported the students actually drank more water. The strategy is to use cooled water coolers at the schools," Vitti said.

Vitti tweeted on Friday: "Every institution that serves children needs to undergo water testing with every water source. Period."

Vitti initiated water testing of all 106 school buildings during the spring. The testing evaluated all water sources, from sinks to drinking fountains.

It is not clear what is the source of the contamination. The district has 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.

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

The district has $29.86 million in needed repairs or replacement costs in plumbing. In five years, the cost to repair or replace will be $82 million.

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

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

Tiffany Brown, spokeswoman for the DEQ, said the department is helping the district to make sure that the samples were properly collected and to verify that a certified lab analyzed them. The team also is providing guidance and consultation, she said.

"Also, from recent sampling results of the Great Lakes Water Authority (which were below the 12 ppb), it is likely the higher results that have been reported by DPS are caused by faucets fixtures or older drinking water fountains," Brown said.

Brown said in Flint, extensive line flushing and testing have been done, along with the replacement of fixtures and installation of more 1,400 filters in schools and day-care and elder-care facilities. 

In July, the DEQ reported that 99 percent of filtered water samples taken at Flint Community Schools met the 5 ppb bottled water standard, and 100 percent of the samples were below the 15 ppb federal Lead and Copper Rule requirement.

Flint Superintendent Derrick Lopez said that the district has secured funding for clean drinking water through January and will continue to use water jugs during that time. Lopez said parents were not advised not to send in bottled water.

"Flint Community Schools continues to work closely with the Department of Environmental Quality, the city of Flint and medical experts to review ongoing water testing results specific to our school buildings and will make long-term decisions in tandem with those parties," Lopez said.

'No safe level'

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.

Dr. Kanta Bhambhani, director of the Lead Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Michigan and a pediatric hematology-oncology specialist, said the decision to wait until the water is safe for consumption by children and others in Detroit is the right decision.

"As high levels of lead were found in DPSCD schools, one thing we know there is no safe lead level for children," she said. "Any lead exposure could be a hazardous situation for the brain. The brain is growing up to 6 years of age. The effects can be of great concern."

In Detroit, Renaissance High School teacher Kerry Williams said the students are worried about the water. The school has elevated copper levels, according to tests.

"To say don’t drink the water. That is definite frightening for the kids," Williams said. "They are worried about it. They are coming to school talking to anyone they can and are all over social media talking about it."

There are 1,200 students who attend the school. Williams said she has been told by the administration that cases of bottled water will be available until water coolers arrive.

"It just blows my mind we don’t have water," she said. "It is ridiculous. I will have to bring a few cases. It's going to be crazy." 

Still, Williams said, Detroit students are resilient. 

"We have grit at DPSCD," she said. "We don’t have computers, but we make it work with cellphones. We don’t have textbooks, so we scan pages on the copier. It’s one thing that makes our kids stronger." 

Get tested

To schedule a screening at Children's Hospital of Michigan, parents can call (313) 989-4007. Patients will be seen at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Specialty Center 3950 Beaubien in Detroit.