Higher lead, copper levels in 19 Detroit schools’ water

by Mark Hicks, originally posted April 13, 2016


Elevated lead or copper levels have been reported in the water at 19 Detroit Public Schools, district officials said Wednesday, nearly a third of those tested.

The district began collecting water samples the week of March 28 at 62 district elementary and elementary-middle schools during screenings by the city and the Health Department. More than 20 of the district’s middle and high schools are expected to be screened this month.

The district did not immediately release information on the levels of lead and copper found in the water, only that those were elevated. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules call for lead levels to fall below 15 parts per billion and copper levels to not exceed 1,300 parts per billion. The district has 97 schools in the system housed in 93 buildings.

Testing involved collecting samples from three “high priority water outlets” at the schools, including the student drinking fountain and food prep sink in kitchens, and was done by a licensed environmental consulting firm, the district said.

“We did this in a proactive way just to ensure that we know exactly what’s going on in our schools,” said Michelle Zdrodowski, executive director of communications at Detroit Public Schools.

She said final figures were not yet available Wednesday night. And “while we remain concerned, the (initial) levels we are seeing are not extremely elevated,” she said.

The testing comes as lead contamination in Flint water after the city began using Flint River water in April 2014 led to that city’s crisis and has forced residents to rely on bottled water for drinking.

Of the Detroit schools tested so far, 19 had initial test results indicating elevated lead and/or copper levels, DPS officials said. They are:

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

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 decision to test was not mandatory but pushed to guarantee student safety and spurred by the elevated lead levels found elsewhere in Michigan, district officials said.

“Like every school district, DPS makes the health and safety of its students and staff its first priority,” said DPS Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes in a statement when testing began earlier this month. “We are committed to ensuring that each of our schools provides an environment that is conducive to teaching and learning. The district has an obligation to ensure that our students and staff can focus all of their attention on what is most important — improved academic achievement. Proactively screening the water in our schools will help everyone stay focused on this goal.”

Once sampling was done and findings were in, officials shut off the drinking fountains until further notice, provided additional bottled water and notified students’ families, Zdrodowski said. Further testing also was planned.

The water at those sites is still considered safe for hand-washing; the EPA says harm from lead relates to ingestion over a long period, according to the district.

“Although children are exposed to lead from many different sources, the EPA maintains that the main place for exposure is in the home due to lead-based paint that is damaged and peeling,” DPS officials said.

Parents with concerns are asked to contact their pediatrician, the Detroit Health Department or the United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s 211 help line.

City health officials have also been urging all Detroit charter schools and early childhood facilities, including day cares, preschools and head starts, to test their drinking water for lead. The Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation is supporting the effort with a $135,000 grant; through that, the city is expected to reimburse up to $225 per building for the lab testing, officials announced last week.

“There’s nothing more important than the health and safety of Detroit’s children,” Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, Director of the Detroit Health Department, said in a statement. “Regularly screening drinking water in schools is a well-established best practice.”

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