As classrooms reopen, stagnant water pipes pose a health risk — and schools don’t have to do anything about it

A sign between two water fountains that reads: Attention. Do not use water fountain.
Experts warn that schools shouldn’t use water fountains after a months-long COVID-19 closure until their plumbing systems have been systematically flushed with water. (Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat)

Water safety experts say thousands of students returning to Michigan schools that have been closed for months are potentially walking into a health hazard.  

Water left stagnant in school plumbing systems during COVID-19-related shutdowns could contain dangerous bacteria or elevated lead levels, potentially posing a threat to students and staff.

Schools can eliminate the danger by flushing plumbing systems with fresh water, a process most districts complete after summer breaks. But experts say schools may need to take extra precautions now, because COVID-related closures have stretched to 11 months in some communities — ample time for bacteria to grow and for lead to leach out of pipes.

As more schools reopen, advocates worry that the intense focus on preventing COVID-19 will lead overstretched school staffs to forget about drinking water hazards.

The state doesn’t require schools to ensure water quality or to regularly test their water. Even districts that say they are flushing their water systems may not be doing enough, said Elin Betanzo, founder of the consulting firm Safe Water Engineering.

“Everyone will say, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve been flushing.’ But that can mean different things to different people,” she said.

State guidance and water quality experts suggest weekly flushing, but that isn’t enough to guarantee safe water. 

Officials in Ann Arbor say they followed state-recommended flushing procedures twice a week throughout the summer. But tests of the district’s water in October revealed potentially dangerous levels of bacteria in water pipes at several schools. The district is now flushing its pipes three times a week, said Bernie Rice, executive director of physical properties.

More classrooms are open to students in Michigan than at virtually any other point during the pandemic after Gov. Whitmer urged schools to offer an in-person option by March 1. In January, 60% of districts planned to offer an in-person option, up from 50% in December. That figure will grow as large urban districts in Flint and Dearborn are set to reopen.

Concerns about water quality for returning students is not limited to Michigan. Schools in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York have reported elevated levels of legionella in their drinking water after returning from a COVID-19 closure. Legionella can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially deadly type of pneumonia, when it is inhaled through mist or steam generated by faucets or shower heads.

Still, a small survey of school administrators in Michigan suggests that some schools aren’t doing everything they can to mitigate the danger. Of 252 people surveyed, 14% said their schools don’t normally flush their plumbing systems after summer break. Another 37% said they don’t know if their schools flush plumbing systems.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy conducted the survey. The survey is anonymous, and the department doesn’t know how many of the state’s 842 school districts are represented in the results.

“We aren’t very confident that the right people are getting the message,” said Patrick Kelly, a senior health care analyst at the Center for Health and Research Transformation, a nonprofit based in Ann Arbor. He said he’d been in contact with school district officials who didn’t know they needed to worry about the safety of their drinking water in addition to the coronavirus as students return to school.

“The possibility of people returning to schools in the near term makes this a very urgent issue,” he said.

If schools don’t have time to make their water safe before students return, experts recommend passing out water bottles until the plumbing can be flushed. That’s what happened in Birmingham, a wealthy Detroit suburb, but it is easier said than done in lower income communities that may lack the means to provide bottled water to all students and staff.

Some districts, including the Detroit Public Schools Community District, use filtered drinking water systems capable of removing lead. A minority of those also have filters capable of removing bacteria such as legionella. 

But many districts don’t have filters. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new budget proposal attempts to fill the gap by spending $55 million to install water filters in schools statewide.

If a school doesn’t flush its plumbing system and doesn’t have filters, students and educators could be in danger of lead poisoning or bacterial infections.

“Schools need to take action now so we don’t have another health risk for students,” said Kristin Totten, education attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “We can’t focus so much on COVID that we miss this underlying nemesis that has been in our schools for a long time, which is lead in the drinking water.”

Water that normally runs through school plumbing typically comes from public water plants, where it is disinfected and often combined with anticorrosive agents that work to prevent pipes from leaching lead into the water.

When new water isn’t pumped into school pipes for weeks at a time, those treatments dissipate, allowing bacteria to form and lead to get into the water.

Most school plumbing systems contain some lead, Betanzo said. She played a role in detecting lead in Flint after a state-appointed emergency manager there changed the city’s water source, causing lead to leach into its water supply. Nearly 9,000 children were likely exposed to lead.

“During the extended shutdown, there may not be corrosion control treatment left,” Betanzo said. “If a school is opening and expecting kids to be drinking the water, they should have been flushing 12 weeks prior” on a regular basis.

She added: “There’s no safe level of lead exposure.” Lead is a potent poison that damages brain development.

Betanzo said that districts that have already found legionella in their plumbing — including Ann Arbor and Birmingham, where she has two children attending schools — should serve as a warning across the state.

 Legionella was discovered in November in the Birmingham district, then again in January, days before some students were scheduled to return to in-person classes. Students were asked to bring bottled water and showers were shut down.

Betanzo said that the presence of legionella suggests that other bacteria might also be present in the water. Other common bacteria that grow in untreated plumbing systems can cause infections of the skin or digestive tract.

“If one thing can grow, then a lot of things can grow in the water,” she said.

She added that the results of the school administrator survey, which show that some schools don’t flush their water systems after an extended break, “don’t surprise me at all.”

Flushing water systems “hasn’t been an area of focus,” she said. “We have no requirements for drinking water quality in school for schools that get public water.”

When schools nationwide shut down in March, school officials in Ann Arbor knew they would have to regularly flush district plumbing systems in order to offer safe drinking water when students returned.

Rice, the district’s top facilities official, said his staff started out flushing the pipes once a week. Then they met with a water safety consultant, who recommended that they follow the state’s recommended flushing methods twice a week.

Bacteria grew anyway, prompting district officials to begin flushing the pipes three times a week. The Ann Arbor district hasn’t indicated when classrooms will be reopened, but Rice said he is increasingly confident that school water systems are ready for students.

“It’s kind of crazy to me that it’s voluntary,” he said. “You’d think that with all the stuff that happened in Flint someone would say ‘Hey, this is mandatory.’”

Editor’s note: Feb. 18, 2021: The story has been updated to clarify that most Michigan schools have some lead components in their plumbing systems, not necessarily pipes, and that corrosion control treatments don’t guarantee that no lead will leach into drinking water.

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