Yesterday (September 4), the children of Detroit headed back to the city’s public schools amid growing concern about water safety. In response to dangerous lead and copper levels, officials have turned off all water fountains district-wide.
Last month, tests of all water sources in 16 school buildings, including sinks and fountains, showed elevated levels. It is not the first time this has happened in the city. Per The Guardian:
The latest results come on the heels of previous tests from 2016 and spring 2018 that revealed elevated copper and lead levels, bringing the total number of schools with water quality issues to 34 out of the 106 Detroit currently operates.
In response, District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced last week, “I am turning off all drinking water in our schools until a deeper and broad analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions.” The decision affects about 50,000 students in 106 schools. The district will provide bottled water and coolers until fountains are turned back on.
Elevated levels of lead in drinking water can have fatal results for children. It affects the brain and nervous system, and can result in damaged hearing and speech, as well as delayed development, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In addition, says The Guardian:
While drinking water is only one of multiple potential sources of lead contamination in the environment, young children are especially vulnerable to irreversible developmental damage because they absorb four to five times as much ingested lead as adults, according to the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, copper poisoning causes vomiting and gastrointestinal issues, among other problems.
The situation in Detroit mirrors that in Flint, just 70 miles away. That city’s ongoing water crisis was prompted by an April 2014 decision by the city to switch Flint’s water source from the Great Lakes Water Authority to the Flint River. It has been linked to elevated lead levels in children’s blood, outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease, as well as a decrease in fertility and an increase in infant deaths.
In April, a report published by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality stated that the 4,500 children enrolled in Flint’s public school system attend class in buildings with potentially contaminated water.
Outside of Michigan, lead was found in school drinking water in Virginia, Texas, and Chicago this year, according to The Guardian.
Ivy Bailey, superintendent of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, says that the problems with Detroit schools’ water was not caused by anything structurally in the schools, but with the water fountains themselves. “It’s not the pipes in the buildings,” she said during a press briefing. She also stressed that the district must create a plan to deal with test results, including providing a source of funding for repairs.
Finding a financial solution to the crisis will be a challenge for the school district, which has historically been underfunded. According to the Detroit News, “About 25 percent of the buildings are in unsatisfactory condition and another 20 percent are in poor condition…. The district has $29.86 million in needed repairs or replacement costs in plumbing. In five years, the cost to repair or replace will be $82 million.”
While Superintendent Vitti does not have a clear plan yet for funding, he stands by his decision to shut off the water. “If you only turn those water sources off, and then you wait and something happens, how do you tell a parent, ‘I was waiting for the next round of tests’?” he told The Guardian. “It would be like playing a game of whack-a-mole. That doesn’t make sense for ensuring the safety of children.”