Detroit district tests drinking water after lead or copper discovered in 6 schools

Students at six Detroit schools have been drinking bottled water for weeks since tests revealed dangerous levels of lead or copper in the schools’ water fountains.

Elevated toxic levels, found in the six schools for the second time since 2016, have prompted expanded retesting in the rest of the 106-school district.

After the 2016 discovery, the district coated pipes at some schools with a silicate to prevent leaching of metals and bacteria, and has continued testing. But retesting this year again discovered elevated levels of metals, and Detroit’s main district shut off water fountains and brought in bottled water.

The discovery is yet another blow to a district struggling with dilapidated  buildings neglected by a series of state-appointed emergency managers during a mounting budget crisis. Last week, district schools were closed early for three consecutive days because of “sweatbox” conditions in unairconditioned buildings, and earlier this year, one school closed after a leaky roof led to mold in the ceiling tiles.

The district initially discovered lead and copper in water pipes in aging district schools when it started testing water in 2016, a move prompted by the Flint water crisis.

The renewed discovery of lead and copper occurred in six schools that tested positive for them in 2016, as did 13 other district schools then. Parents at the six schools have been notified, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti informed board members in a memo last month.

“We transparently and proactively have discontinued the use of water at schools when and where concerns have been raised while communicating to parents when concerns have surfaced,” Vitti said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are proactively testing the water at all of our schools even though this is not required by federal, state, or local laws.”

A facility review of district buildings will be shared with the community later this month, Vitti’s statement said, and will “define our district’s facility challenges moving forward.”

The six affected elementary and middle schools schools are J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, Bow Elementary School, Burton International Academy, Carver STEM Academy, Detroit Lions Academy and Sampson Webber Leadership Academy.

While she’s grateful the district voluntarily tests the water and informs parents and students, Burton International Academy’s PTA President Dana Dacres said the water shutoff has been a great inconvenience for students, teachers and staff.

Teachers line younger students up for water breaks at coolers dispersed around the pre-K-8 school, thus reducing classroom instruction time. Previously, most students drank from hallway water fountains as needed. Four-ounce foil-covered water cups also are available around the school, she said.

As a result, Dacres said, custodians have increased workloads because of spills and litter from the water cups, and kitchen workers lack water they need for reheating and cleaning.

“It’s just a lot more waste, and it’s because of this aging building” on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near the city’s historic Corktown district, she said.  “It’s got questionable material and changing the pipes is going to be costly and time consuming, but something needs to be done.”

Dacres also said she’s concerned about how long the repairs will take because summer school will be held in the building.

District board member LaMar Lemmons said he’s alarmed.

“I’m concerned about all our children in these buildings,” he said.

Lead exposure can cause serious damage to children’s developing brains, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and there is no safe level of exposure.

Studies show most lead exposure doesn’t immediately cause symptoms, but as the concentration of lead in the body  rises, symptoms can include headaches, stomach pain, loss of appetite or constipation. Research also shows lead exposure also can lead to developmental delays, decreased intelligence and cognition, behavioral issues and an array of other health issues. Copper can cause gastrointestinal issues, and long-term exposure to copper can damage the liver or kidneys.

The district began testing for lead, copper and other contaminants in 2016 after concerns in the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, which began in 2014 when the source of the city’s drinking water was changed from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the less expensive Flint River.

The Flint water wasn’t sufficiently treated, and more than 100,000 residents were believed to be exposed to high lead levels in the drinking water. Many residents, who are still drinking bottled water, grew ill because of the lead exposure. A federal state of emergency was declared in January 2016, and the city’s corroded lead water pipes are still being replaced.

Detroit district buildings are undergoing a review of its building conditions, many of which are in serious disrepair. It’s a problem that became a national story more than two years ago when the district cancelled most classes because so many teachers called in sick to protest school conditions.

School board member LaMar Lemmons said the news of the water contamination is upsetting.

He had wanted to sue the state and questioned Vitti about children’s safety. “He said we’re doing this 18-month study. My problem is what happens in the interim? Our children are being exposed to possible contamination, and that’s a health and safety risk.”