Dangerous lead levels detailed at some DPS schools

by Jennifer Chambers and Jim Lynch, originally posted on April 14, 2016


Detroit Public Schools water test results released Thursday show that 15 buildings have tested positive for high lead levels, including one where a drinking fountain recorded 100 times the allowable limit.

The disclosure late Wednesday that 19 of 62 schools exceeded acceptable amounts of lead or copper was followed by a detailed release Thursday of the levels found in tap water at those schools.

Reacting to the results, the city’s health department director said Thursday that all DPS students under the age of 6 should have a lead screening, regardless of whether they attend one of the schools with elevated lead or copper.

“The test is free. It’s really important,” said Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, executive director of the Detroit Department of Health & Wellness Promotion. “We know that lead can have serious consequences later on in life. We want to give every child the best opportunities in life. That means a life free of lead.”

The testing comes in the wake of lead contamination in Flint’s water after that city switched its supply to the Flint River in April 2014.

Michelle Zdrodowski, a DPS spokeswoman, said the district is testing the water in its schools as a precautionary measure. “With everything going on in the state of Michigan and across the United States, the time was right and it was the right thing for us to do,” she said.

Lead testing was last completed in DPS in the 2006-07 school year, Zdrodowski said.

Lead and copper exposure can lead to health problems ranging from stomach pain to brain damage, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The district began collecting water samples during the week of March 28 at 62 district elementary and elementary-middle schools. More than 20 of the district’s middle and high schools are expected to be screened in the next two weeks.

Results released by the district Thursday show lead exceeding the 15 parts per billion action level in samples from 15 schools out of the 62 tested. A pair of samples — one drawn immediately from taps and a second drawn after a period of flushing — were taken at three locations per school, including the student drinking fountain and food prep sink in kitchens.

First-draw sampling, when water is taken immediately from a source after it has been inactive for a time, usually includes particulate lead that has settled in the plumbing, leading to higher readings. Flushed samples are taken after a fountain or tap has been allowed to run first, often clearing particulate contaminants and producing lower readings.

The highest number recorded came from Ronald Brown Academy, where one unflushed sample produced 1,500 parts per billion. A flushed sample from the same location produced 200 ppb.

Another high lead reading came from Moses Field School, where an unflushed sample returned 280 ppb, and a flushed sample showed 52 ppb.

The remaining high lead readings from around the city were in double digits.

Copper, with an action level of 1,300 ppb, was identified as a problem at eight Detroit schools. Priest Elementary-Middle School produced the highest reading, with an unflushed sample producing 3,400 ppb at one location.

The second-highest copper reading came from Burton International Academy, at 2,700 ppb. Moses Field had a single copper sample at 2,100 ppb.

El-Sayed said city health officials have told DPS they want a full mitigation plan in 15 days for water and cleanliness at the district, including a 90-day action plan going forward.

“We value all the children and want to make sure they are in a completely safe place,” El-Sayed said.

The likelihood is low that a child was exposed to serious amounts of lead at school, El-Sayed said, because DPS has been providing bottled water for students well in advance of the tests. DPS said bottled water has been provided three times a day along with three meals since 2012.

“As far as we know, most of the schools were elevated, but not extremely so,” he said.

Parents concerned about lead exposure during hand-washing can send hand wipes or hand sanitizer to school, El-Sayed said.

“We are working with DPS to make sure alternatives to water use are available,” he said.

Schools with elevated levels of lead or copper are:

Beard Early Childhood, Bow Elementary, Ronald Brown Academy, Bunche Preparatory Academy, Burton International Academy, Carstens Elementary-Middle, Carver STEM Academy, JE Clark Preparatory Academy, Detroit Lions Academy, Edison Elementary, JR King Elementary-Middle, Ludington Magnet Middle, Thurgood Marshall Elementary-Middle, Moses Field Elementary-Middle, Priest Elementary, Sampson Webber Leadership Academy, Spain Elementary-Middle, Turning Point Academy and Vernor Elementary.

Outside Spain Elementary-Middle School after classes Thursday, parent Regina Slaughter lowered and shook her head when she learned her sons’ school was on the list of buildings with elevated levels of contaminants. One tap at the school showed a copper level of 1,300 ppb before being flushed.

“Wow. I didn’t think it was this school,” she said as she sat in her car waiting for her two sons, third- and fifth-graders.

After the district initially tested the school in February, Slaughter said she thought the water was safe. Now she said the only thing she could think of was Flint and its water contamination issues. She said she’s not confident the district will fix the issue quickly.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “By the time my fifth-grader gets to eighth grade, they probably still wouldn’t have done anything.”

Sonya Lewis, mother of a kindergartner and second-grader at Spain, said not only is she worried about her daughters’ education, now she’s concerned about the water. Lewis said she’s going to have her daughters bring bottled water to school.

“I tell them don’t drink the water out the water fountain,” she said. “I was just never really fond of my kids drinking out of the water fountain, period. The school is so old and they ain’t fixing it. Who knows what’s coming out of the water fountain.”

DPS students in grades K-8 receive bottled water three times a day with each free meal the district provides. This week, the district received additional supplies of bottled water in sealed cups and plastic bottles that it distributed to all the affected schools, Zdrodowski said.

During testing at Edison Elementary School, water was collected from a prep sink in the kitchen and two drinking fountains used by students and staff.

In a letter, parents were informed of the test, the location of the water sample taken for testing and the presence of irregular test results.

School officials said water to the prep sink has been shut off and meal service that does not require extra water or water for cleanup will be provided. All of the drinking fountains at Edison have been turned off until further notice “as a precautionary measure,” and DPS will provide extra bottled water to the students and staff of the school, the letter says.

The district has 97 schools in the system housed in 93 buildings.

Last week, the district reported that results for nine of the schools tested by that point showed elevated copper levels at Burton and higher lead levels at the former Beard Elementary, which is more than 100 years old.

The tests by ATC Group, a licensed environmental consulting firm, cost $50,000. Half was paid for by a foundation grant and the other half was paid by the district.

“Moving forward, the district is considering making this annual testing,” Zdrodowski said.

Detroit Federation of Teachers Interim President Ivy Bailey said Thursday all students, school employees and educators deserve to know that water in their school buildings is safe to drink.

“No parent should have to worry about a child being poisoned while at school from unsafe drinking water,” Bailey said in a statement.

Lead in schools has become a hot-button issue in the last six months as Flint’s water problems have played out on a national stage. The detection of contamination in the city’s water last summer quickly led to the discovery of elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint children.

In the investigations that followed, local and state officials learned some things about the federal Lead and Copper Rule that governs drinking water. Among the most critical — the fact the law does not require schools to test what comes out of their water fountains and faucets.

Without being required to do so, most schools simply don’t test for lead. They often rely on reports from their water suppliers that indicate only the safety of the water when it leaves the treatment plant.

That fails to take into account the contamination from the water distribution system — mains and pipelines, as well as plumbing fixtures on a school’s property. An informal survey conducted by The Detroit News in October showed taps and fountains were not regularly tested in the urban school districts of Detroit, Lansing and Muskegon.

At that time, five months before DPS conducted its own testing, a Virginia Tech water expert said Michigan schools were likely to have lead problems that were going undetected.

“You would definitely find it in other schools (in Michigan) — not all schools,” said Marc Edwards. “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 groups that’s drinking from that same tap all year.”

In October, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality tested schools in the Flint system and found three with elevated lead levels. Three months later, two state senators introduced legislation calling for mandatory water testing in state schools.

To date, no action has been taken on the measure.

State Rep. Leslie Love, D-Detroit, said she was disheartened to learn of the DPS test results.

“Given the crisis in Flint, as well as other infrastructure issues we have faced across the state in the last year, it is becoming clearer with each passing day that we cannot afford to run Michigan like a business. Too often, the model has been to not address something until it causes a problem, but by then it is often too late,” Love said.

State Rep. Brian Banks, D-Detroit, said the elevated lead levels need to be dealt with immediately.

Banks is calling for quick action on his bill, House Bill 4061, which creates a trigger when any health crisis exists dealing with lead.

The bill would require an initial noninvasive screening and take steps to ensure that lead exposure in children is caught early so that long-term health impacts can be minimized.

“We know that severe problems are caused by any level of lead in a child’s system, and we have to take action now to address lead exposure quickly,” said Banks.

HB 4061 requires health professionals to order lead exposure screening when a patient, between the ages of 12 and 24 months, lives in any of the target communities named in the bill, which would include Detroit.

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