Detroit schools get water stations that filter toxins

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Machion Jackson, assistant superintendent of operations, Detroit Public Schools Community District, drinks from one of the new hydration stations inside the Herman A. Breithaupt Career and Technical Center on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 as the district moves to install hundreds across the district.

Detroit — School officials in Detroit are near the end of a plan to install new water stations at all 105 school buildings after drinking water was shut off last August due to excessive levels of lead and copper.

New water stations that use filtration technology to remove lead, copper and other contaminants have been installed in 82 of the 105 classroom buildings in Detroit Public Schools Community District. The remaining schools are expected to have stations installed by the end of June.

The district is spending about $2.7 million to purchase and install hydration stations before the start of the school year in September. The majority of funding came from the business and philanthropic community.

Once the process is completed, district officials say DPSCD will be one of the nation’s largest public school districts with hydration stations in all classroom buildings.

"We can only hope that our proactive approach to ensuring clean water for students will be shared by other schools in Detroit and throughout the country," Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of DPSCD, said. "It is only logical that they too have individual water sources with elevated levels of cooper and/or lead and have not tested."

A list of installed stations, a timetable for the remaining stations to be installed and future testing dates can be found on the district website. 

Just days before the first day of school on Sept. 4, 2018, Vitti turned off drinking water inside all school buildings after an initial 16 schools showed high levels of copper and/or lead.

Water bottles can be filled at one of the new hydration stations inside the Herman A. Breithaupt Career and Technical Center in Detroit.

 A review of testing data by The Detroit News showed one DPSCD school had more than 54 times the allowable amount of lead under federal law while another exceeded the regulated copper level by nearly 30 times.

Machion Jackson, assistant superintendent of operations at DPSCD, said each stainless-steel station filters water according to EPA guidelines. It also filters other contaminants and cools the water, she said.

Each station has two key features, a bubbler for direct drinking and a sensor-activation spot to fill an empty bottle. 

"We like that not only it is environmentally friendly but it encourages students to drink more water as opposed to sugary drinks," Jackson said.

The station has a digital counter of how many disposable bottles have been saved by the use of that station — which counts 16 ounces of water used.

It also has a filter status illuminator. After the filter cleans 3,000 gallons of water, the light moves from green to yellow, signalling that it's time to change the filter. Once the filter reaches red, the station shuts down and is not usable by students, Jackson said.

 Filters, estimated to be changed twice a year, will run $60-70 apiece.

The district is phasing in water station installation, starting with newer school buildings and moving toward older buildings, many of which are around 100 years old.

Work crews have three phases of work: demolition of the old unit, new electrical work, and plumbing line adjustments, officials said. 

Every school is receiving one station per 100 students enrolled with a minimum of two per building. Jackson said the first phase of installation focused on student access only. Stations will be installed in teacher lounges and gymnasium using overages.

"The water tastes good. Like good filtered water. No aftertaste," Jackson said.

The district is purchasing water bottles for all of its 50,000 students. The bottles are expected to be available in the fall.

Water from each station is tested before they are used by students.

"Every unit has passed the test with flying colors," Jackson said. 

Jackson said the district stepped out in front of its water quality problem and has provided information on its website.

"We wanted our parents to know what we found and most importantly our plan for rectifying the problem," Jackson said. "The major concern we have received is how soon and how quickly we can turn them on."

Water testing across the school included water in restrooms, kitchen sinks and other taps. Signs continue to be posted in bathrooms telling users the water is safe to wash hands but not consume.

Jackson said there is no funding in the district's budget to address water issues in school bathrooms. 

The Michigan Department of Education has approved the use of filtration systems that are being purchased for school kitchens, Jackson said.

The district estimates the cost for kitchen filters to be $30,000, which will be financed through the food and nutrition budget.

Similar systems are in use at the University of Michigan, Grosse Pointe Public School System, Lake Orion schools and in other suburban schools, DPSCD officials said.

As they waited for the hydration stations, students at Detroit schools were getting water from water coolers inside schools.

DPSCD student Bobby Thompson, a 10th grader taking welding classes at Breithaupt, said drinking water from the fountain at his school in the past was not an option.

Herman A. Breithaupt Career and Technical Center student Bobby Thompson drinks from one of the new hydration stations at the school in Detroit.

"At my old school it kind of came out different colors sometimes and it wasn't really good," Thompson, 15, said.

At Breithaupt, the vocational school has several water hydration stations where students and staff can fill a water bottle or drinking directly from a water at the foundation.

Thompson said, "It tastes good. It tastes like water."

Vitti has said the most practical, long-term and safest solution for water quality problems inside the schools is water hydration stations in every building. 

Vitti initiated water testing at all school buildings in May 2018 and August after initial tests results showed 16 schools had high levels of copper and/or lead. Another eight tested for elevated levels in the spring after they were identified with concerns in 2016.

The district received more test results in September that showed 33 additional schools had elevated levels and additional tests completed earlier this year that showed elevated levels at 15 schools, bringing the total number of schools with tainted water to 72 in a district besieged by $500 million in building repair needs.

Among the elevated levels reported by the Detroit district and reviewed by The News are a kitchen faucet inside Mason Elementary-Middle School that had more than 54 times the amount of lead allowed under federal law, a drinking fountain inside Mark Twain School for Scholars that had more than 53 times the federal threshold and a drinking fountain on the first floor near the kitchen of Bethune Elementary-Middle School that had copper levels at nearly 30 times the amount allowed for the metal.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends lead limits of 15 micrograms per liter or 15 part per billion. Water samples showed extremely high elevations of lead at Mason (813 mcgs), Twain (807), Davis Aerospace Technical at Golightly (626), and Bagley (382).

The EPA limits copper to 1,300 micrograms per liter. Extremely elevated levels of copper were found at Bethune (38,800, 27,300 and 16,900) Academy of the Americas elementary-middle school (15,500) and Western International (13,400).

Machion Jackson, assistant supervisor of operations, Detroit Public Schools, shows one of the new hydration stations inside the Herman A. Breithaupt Career and Technical Center on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 as the district moves to install hundreds across the district.

According to Michigan health officials, children are at higher risk of harm from lead because their developing brains and nervous systems are more sensitive. Lead can cause health problems for children, including learning difficulties, behavioral issues including hyperactivity, lower IQ, slowed growth and development, and hearing and speech problems.

Exposure to copper can cause gastrointestinal symptoms and health problems in some children with pre-existing conditions, health experts say.

Michigan has no rules that require school districts to test for lead in their water supply, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. At least eight states require schools to test for lead, and many others assist with voluntary testing, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

DPSCD parent Montgomery Jackson said she wants children to be safe from lead. 

"I am excited about the hydration stations and that they are being put everywhere," she said."Dr. Vitti took the initiative to test our water on his own, which no one has done that. Other districts don't know (if they have lead) because it is not mandated."