Recent Lead Problems In Schools: Flint, Michigan – Hydroviv

Recent Lead Problems In Schools: Flint, Michigan

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Recent Lead Problems In Schools: Flint, Michigan

Emma Schultz, M.S.   

Many schools across the country have recently made the news for lead in drinking water, often at dangerously high levels. Since the Flint, Michigan water crisis brought lead contamination and lead poisoning into the spotlight in 2015, there has been a push for increased water testing in schools around the country. It’s often unlikely that these high test results are new; it is much more likely that this has been an ongoing undetected problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 90,000 public schools, as well as half a million child care facilities, are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. While these statistics are dated (2002), they are still referenced by EPA. Since the utility is the responsible party for testing water, schools are not required to test, unless voluntarily or if local laws are more stringent. Most opt out because voluntary lead testing is extremely expensive. Water frequently stagnates in school pipes, due to nights, weekends, and summers when water usage is drastically diminished. This stagnation leads to leaching of lead, and therefore lead accumulation, when there are lead pipes or lead-containing valves and fittings. Many public schools across the country have an aging infrastructure, and with age comes the increased likelihood of lead-containing plumbing.

It is important to note that there is no such thing as a safe level of lead in drinking water. No level of lead is safe, especially when it comes to sensitive populations such as children. The EPA federal floor of 15 parts per billion, set in 1991, is much higher than EPA and CDC have admitted is safe (they agree, there is no safe level of lead). In addition, 10% of samples are legally allowed to exceed the 15 ppb threshold without resulting in any utility violations. In contrast, The American Academy of Pediatrics proposes that lead in school drinking water should not exceed 1 ppb.

Flint, Michigan

Flint has become synonymous with lead contamination. When the city switched their municipal water source from treated water from the City of Detroit (DWSD) to the Flint River in 2014 to save money, they failed to properly treat the river’s water, which led to widespread leaching of lead across the city’s network of aging pipes. Although Flint re-connected to DWSD water in October of 2015, the damage had already been done. Due to widespread lead poisoning following the switch, the city was declared to be in a state of emergency in January of 2016. Since then, the state has provided bottled water to the residents of Flint at a cost of over $16 million.

Flint has once again made national headlines, for several issues related to lead in their drinking water. Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder announced on Friday, April 6th, that the “City of Flint’s water quality [is now] restored” and “the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.” Governor Snyder’s announcement summarized the extensive testing that has taken place in Flint’s public and private schools since 2015 and concluded that “tests that were above acceptable levels were at individual points of use within schools and do not reflect overall water quality within any school building.”

Flint’s mayor Karen Weaver lashed back at Governor Snyder on Monday April 9th, stating that Flint “did not cause the man-made water disaster, therefore adequate resources should continue being provided until the problem is fixed and all the lead and galvanized pipes have been replaced.” State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich of Flint agreed with Mayor Weaver, and added that "we won't feel safe drinking our water until every bad pipe is replaced, and the administration that caused this disaster needs to make sure bottled water stays available until that happens." Meanwhile, the supply of bottled water, which has come at a cost of $22,000 per day to the state of Michigan, is expected to run out by the end of this week.

The recent benediction from the governor regarding Flint’s water quality comes shortly after Flint Community Schools (FCS) has undergone three rounds of water testing in 2018 which has also made national news headlines. This testing is the first since 2016 in Flint’s public schools; students across all FCS schools have been relying on bottled water since September of 2015. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has reported that a majority of school taps and faucets are now well below the federal Action Level for lead [remember that the nationwide Action Level for lead in municipal drinking water, as established by EPA in the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, is 15 parts per billion].

It is important to note that there is no such thing as a safe level of lead in drinking water. No level of lead is safe, especially when it comes to sensitive populations such as children. The EPA federal floor of 15 parts per billion, set in 1991, is much higher than EPA and CDC have admitted is safe (they agree, there is no safe level of lead). In addition, 10% of samples are legally allowed to exceed the 15 ppb threshold without resulting in any utility violations. In contrast, The American Academy of Pediatrics proposes that lead in school drinking water should not exceed 1 ppb.

While the majority of taps and faucets tested in 2018 are indeed below the Action Level, and are a far cry from some of the horrifying 2016 test results, problems continue to plague some schools. Doyle-Ryder Elementary, built in 1981, is one of those schools. Of the 21 rooms tested at Doyle-Ryder during the third round of testing in March, 5 exceeded the 15 ppb Action Level, with individual tap results as high as 105, 126, and 155 ppb. This is nearly 25% of the rooms testing above the Action Level. Comparing individual taps tested in 2016 and 2018, it can be observed that some of the previous offenders (such as Sink Faucets 02CF039 and 02CF041) are still supplying high levels of lead. This suggests that faucet and connection replacement plumbing have yet to occur. While the 2016 guidelines suggest that “flushing [a] tap for three minutes following periods of stagnation is likely to reduce lead concentrations and lead exposure,” 2018’s first round of testing found lead levels in Sink Faucet 02CF041 twice as high (85 ppb) post-flushing compared to pre-flushing. Additionally, tap flushing in public schools isn’t a realistic way to reduce lead exposure.

Of the schools tested, only Pierce Elementary did not have any test results above the 15 ppb threshold (though one tap tested at 15 ppb pre-flushing). Eisenhower Elementary, Freeman Elementary, and Holmes Stem Academy did not exceed the Action Level in the first round of testing, but did in subsequent tests. Testing protocol was changed somewhat after the first round of testing to test all taps prior to flushing the system, and take two samples post-flushing. News outlets reported in February that more samples were found to contain lead in the second round of testing. This appears to be true, though some of the high results come from taps prior to flushing.

Some of the higher individual tap lead levels at FCS schools, as tested in 2018, are as follows.

School

1st Round Sampling (01/2018), in ppb

2nd Round Sampling (02/2018), in ppb

3rd Round Sampling (03/2018), in ppb

Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary

16 (pre-flush)

23 (pre-flush); 8, 6

94 and 75 (pre-flush); 16, 15, 13

Eisenhower School

4

279 (same tap tested at 69 pre-flush), 24

104 (pre-flush); 16, 11, 10

Freeman School

12

86 (pre-flush); 5

18 (pre); 2

Neithercut Elementary

20, 18, and 29 (pre-flush); 12

42 (pre-flush); 34, 22 (2x)

85 and 16 (2x) (pre-flush); 20

Brownell Stem Academy

16

30 and 22 (pre-flush); 11, 10

26 (pre-flush); 87, 30

Doyle-Ryder Elementary

145, 85, 47, 41, 40, 29, 23, 21

80, 56, 43, 26

22, 105 and 32 (pre-flush); 155, 22, 126

Holmes Stem Academy

7

16, 12

36 ppb

Pierce Elementary

8

5 ppb

15 (pre-flush); 9

Potter Elementary

19

26 and 20 (pre-flush); 8

33 (pre-flush); 17, 16

Northwestern High School*

57 and 53 (pre-flush); 44, 23, 22

87, 31 and 25 (pre-flush); 15, 10, 8

28, 38, 58 and 20 (pre-flush); 28, 13

Southwestern Classical Academy

62

61, 21

55 (pre-flush); 13, 6


*A note about Northwestern High School: one of the rooms in which a high test result was found was the school’s auditorium, which at the time of first round testing was measured at 122℉. This indicates that there are additional infrastructure concerns that may confound test results.

 As reported by Michigan Live, FCS students drink bottled water that has been provided “through donations from Walmart, Coca-Cola, Nestle and PepsiCo. [FCS] has said it's secured a continued supply of water through at least June.” While the Department of Environmental Quality is pleased with the testing results, work clearly remains for these schools, with Doyle-Ryder and Neithercut Elementaries, and Northwestern High School displaying the greatest need for further improvements. Given the ongoing litigation pertaining to Flint students’ exposure to lead poisoning through drinking water - wherein a more than $4 million agreement was reached on Monday - it would benefit not just the students but also the Michigan Department of Education and Flint area school districts to continue replacing the faucets and connection plumbing that was targeted in 2016 as problematic. The rhetoric being bandied about that flushing the systems leads to reduced lead concentrations and lead exposure has been shown in several instances to be inaccurate.

 

Other articles we think you might enjoy: 

How do I know if my home has lead plumbing?
How can I minimize/avoid exposure to lead in drinking water?
How is lead federally regulated in drinking water?

  

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