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Elevated levels of lead and copper found in water at 19 Detroit schools

Apr 14, 2016

Elevated levels of lead and copper have been found in the water at 17 more schools in the Detroit Public School district. Two schools of the have already announced high levels of the substances.  

Drinking fountains continue to be tested in Detroit's public schools
Credit Gabrielle Emanuel / Michigan Radio

Detroit Public Schools began collecting and testing water samples from over 60 schools in the district the week of March 28.

The district has not yet released specific information on the levels of lead and copper found in the water, only that they are higher than the levels recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Presently, the EPA rules call for lead levels to fall below 15 parts per billion and copper levels to not exceed 1,300 parts per billion. 

Michelle Zdrodowski, executive director of communications for Detroit Public Schools, spoke with Michigan Radio about the district's plans in light of the tainted water in the Detroit schools: 

"As of yesterday we found out that we have 19 schools with elevated levels of copper and lead out of the 62 in the district," explained Zdrodowski. "So, as soon as we got those results back throughout the course of the two weeks, we took immediate action at those affected schools." 

This testing of DPS, Zdrodowski says, was performed "proactively because we understood what was going on across the state and, quite frankly, across the country and we wanted to know what was going on in our schools." 

Mark Hicks of The Detroit News reported on the tainted water and the district’s response: 

“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.” 

According to a letter to the parents of the students at Detroit Public Schools, the district is working for every safety precaution. Ann Zaniewski of the Detroit Free Press reported more on this: 

“According to a document the district provided to parents, when elevated lead or copper levels are found, DPS informs the city's health department, shuts down the water outlet in question, retests water throughout the school (not just at the three initial testing points) and brings in additional bottled water for students and staff.” 

The district has a contract with the environmental consulting firm ATC Group to conduct the water sampling. A news release from April 5 reported on the school water tests that had been collected thus far from nine school buildings: 

"Seven of the nine came back non-detect for lead and copper. Of the two remaining schools, one of the sample results came back above EPA levels for copper, and the other had elevated lead levels." 

The district is in the process of testing the rest of the 62 elementary-middle schools, five middle schools, and 16 high schools. According to a fact sheet released by the Detroit Public School District, water testings will be collected from three high priority water outlets: food prep sinks in school kitchens, drinking fountains in the teacher lounges, and drinking fountains used by students. 

And, according to the DPS's fact sheet, if the lead or copper testing in any of the district's schools comes back abnormally high, the school will immediately take the following actions: 

  • Turn off all of the drinking fountains until further notice and provide additional bottled water for the school
  • Test all of the drinking fountains
  • Turn off the drinking fountains in the main buildings until further notice and provide bottled water for the staff
  • Analyze the “flush” samples, or the water samples taken after 30 seconds of running from the source
  • Turn off the drinking fountains in the two portable structures and provide bottled water to students and staff as a precautionary measure until the results of the screening of the water in the portables are returned

Zdrodowski discussed what this testing could mean for future students and teachers in the DPS system.

"We are now starting to get those second flush tests back, and the first three have come back clear. That means that the issue is probably just a localized issue, and that the problem is probably localized to that one particular fixture," Zdrodowski explained. "So now we can look at that particular fixture and say, 'OK, do we need to replace a part? Do we need to replace the fixture itself? Or do we need to flush all the lines of the school every morning and have an experienced engineer do that. That’s all a part of what we are going to be discussing with the Detroit health department as we draft mitigation plans for each of these 19 schools. The mitigation plan will be based on when the final tests come back.”

A list of the affected schools can be found here: Beard Early Childhood, Bow Elementary School, Ronald Brown Academy, Bunche Preparatory Academy, Burton International Academy, Carstens Academy of Aquatic Science, Carver STEM Academy, J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, Detroit Lions Academy, Edison Elementary School, J.R. 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, Turning Point Academy and Vernor Elementary School.