Students across Michigan are heading back to school this month, and in some cities, students won’t be getting their water out of drinking fountains.
In August, Detroit Public Schools Community District announced that all drinking water in the district would be shut off indefinitely after elevated lead and copper levels were discovered. As of September 19, results found elevated levels in water fixtures at 57 of 86 schools tested so far. And in Flint, the public schools plan to continue using water bottles until January.
That has many parents wondering whether they should start packing water bottles in addition to PB&Js in their kids’ school lunches this year. Here's what you need to know about school policies and practices regarding lead in drinking water.
School districts aren’t required to test drinking water
There aren’t any federal, state, or local laws that mandate water testing for schools. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality provides testing guides for schools that wish to do so, but that guidance does not include suggestions for how frequent schools should be testing.
Michigan isn't unique by not having mandatory water testing in schools. Only eight states have laws that require lead-in-water testing in schools.
Some Michigan lawmakers have attempted to pass bills that would require water testing for schools, but none have made it through the legislature yet.
Even though testing isn't mandatory, many school districts conduct voluntary tests. That's how Detroit discovered elevated lead and copper levels in some of their schools this summer.
DPCSD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is an advocate for testing school drinking water. “We should be water-testing throughout this country, at every school and every water source," Vitti said. "Especially in the city of Detroit.”
Old schools, old pipes
The definition of lead-free for drinking water fixtures and components changed in 2014, so if your child’s school was built after 2014, it’s unlikely that water fixtures would cause elevated lead or copper levels.
However, older schools are more likely to have the brass pipes and fixtures that can contaminate drinking water. And old fixtures are a concern for Michigan’s aging schools, especially in Detroit, where the average school building is over 60 years old.
Michigan is one of eleven states that does not fund school infrastructure, so if a school discovers elevated lead and copper levels, the ability to the problem would differ greatly district to district.
This is because school facilities are funded almost solely through local property taxes in Michigan, which has contributed to worsening building conditions in cities with low property values while wealthier cities are able to build new, safe schools.
So, does my kid’s school have lead in the drinking water?
As Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith learned while reporting on the fallout of the Flint water crisis, there isn’t enough data to make sweeping conclusions about the statistics of lead in drinking water. There is no safe amount of lead in drinking water, so some parents may prefer to go with the “better safe than sorry” route.
And while there are steps homeowners can take to reduce the risk, entire school districts can’t operate the same way as a single-family home.
MDEQ does advise schools to take certain precautions, such as flushing taps before use and using only cold water for drinking and food preparation.
If you’re concerned about lead in drinking water, ask your school about how often they test the water, and make sure taking the necessary steps are taken to keep water clean and kids healthy.