DETROIT— Elevated lead or copper levels have been found in water in 19 Detroit schools amid ongoing testing at schools around the country in response to the crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Detroit Public Schools began collecting water samples two weeks ago. District spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said then that a number of factors, including the lead-tainted water crisis in nearby Flint, led to “proactive and precautionary” testing.
School officials across the U.S. are testing classroom sinks and cafeteria faucets for lead, trying to uncover problems and to reassure parents. Few schools and day care centers are required to check for lead because most, like Detroit, receive their water from municipal systems that test at other locations. Lead is a neurotoxin that can damage child brain development, cause behavioral problems and sicken adults.
A recent analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data by The Associated Press found that among the schools and day care centers operating their own water systems, 278 violated federal lead levels at some point during the past three years. About one-third of those had lead levels that were at least double the federal limit.
In almost all cases, the problems can be traced to aging buildings with lead pipes, older drinking fountains and water fixtures that have parts made with lead — exactly the case in the Detroit schools.
The district did not release specifics about the elevated levels of lead or copper found in 19 of the 62 buildings tested so far, but said that it is working to fix the problems and is providing bottled water. Families have been notified.
Only about 1 of every 10 schools in the country is required to conduct lead testing, the AP review found. Those receiving their water from city-owned systems — an estimated 90,000, according to the EPA — are not required to do so by the federal government.
The inconsistent testing leaves most schoolchildren in buildings that are unchecked and vulnerable because lead particles can build up in plumbing when water goes unused for long periods. The average age of school buildings in the U.S. dates to the 1970s. It was not until 1986 that lead pipes were banned in 1986. Brass fixtures were ordered to be virtually lead-free in 2014.
State lawmakers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania recently proposed legislation that would require testing in all schools, and some members of Congress have called for more money and expanded lead sampling.
How much it will cost to fix the water issues in the financially troubled Detroit school district is not yet known. State lawmakers recently approved $48.7 million in emergency funding to keep schools open through the end of the academic year. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder also has pressed the Legislature to enact a $720 million restructuring plan that would split the district in two and pay off its operating debt.