Detroit Schools Test Positive for High Levels of Lead and Copper


Detroit’s City school district is shutting off the water to all schools in the district. 16 of the 24 schools recently tested in the district came back positive for elevated levels of copper and lead in the drinking water. Testing began on buildings in June, and officials are testing all 106 school buildings. The district has about 50,000 who attend the school buildings.

All Drinking Water Turned Off

While awaiting the test results from the water analysis, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti of the Detroit Public Schools Community District has shut off all drinking water to all the schools in the district. It is a precaution, but he explained he takes the safety of students and faculty members at the school seriously. Both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agree there is no safe level of lead in a child’s blood. Instead, the school will be providing students with bottled water. Water coolers are available to students instead of traditional drinking fountains, providing a safe alternative until there is a solution.

The Precautions Do Not Affect Local Residents

Town officials want to be clear the precautions do not extend to the local residents surrounding the schools. Because of aging pipes in the school buildings, the problem exists only in the school buildings in the district. The local treatment plant tests the water hourly, ensuring the safety of the town water supply. If local residents have concerns about the quality of water in their own homes, they should consult a professional for testing.

Lead Levels in the Water

The 1986 and the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act outline that any levels of lead over 15 parts per billion is unsafe and needs action. Detection of lead is not possible via taste in water. The only way to know it’s there is through water sample testing.

Homes served by public water supply should be able to call the local water authority to find out the lead levels in their drinking supply. However, this amount can change by the time the water gets to your home, depending on the type of pipes between your home and the original source. It is best to have a sample tested at your home to receive accurate results.

Copper Levels in the Water

In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlined guidelines for levels of copper in sources of drinking water. Since then, home and public water systems underwent testing for the two elements per the guidelines. According to the guidelines, if 10% of the samples collected show a copper level of 1,300 micrograms per liter, the water needs purification.

How Do Lead And Copper Enter Drinking Water?

Lead and copper enter drinking water through the pipes and other plumbing materials. Older construction buildings, such as aging school buildings, often contain the original piping used at the time of construction. Over time, plumbers have found these materials begin to corrode and rust, leaching chemicals into the water flowing through the pipes. The farther the water has to travel, the more chemicals leach into the water stream.

This is not always contained to older buildings, however. Newer construction buildings also use copper plumbing. There is a coating on the inside of copper pipes to keep the heavy metal from entering the water stream. This coating needs time to form, which means newer piping fixtures may also leach copper into the drinking water. Newer homes with copper plumbing should flush the pipes any time the water sits for more than six hours. By opening the faucets and running the water supply until you feel a drop in temperature, you can be sure you are receiving clean water from the source.

Health Effects of Exposure to Copper and Lead in Drinking Water

Exposure to lead and copper in the drinking water can cause many long-term health problems ranging from nausea to liver and kidney damage. Because humans need water daily, the chemicals can build up in your system over time, causing more intense symptoms down the road. It is in your bones, damaging important structures in the body. Effects of contaminated drinking water include:

● Behavior and learning problems
● Slowed growth levels
● Lower IQ
● Hyperactivity
● Anemia
● Hearing loss

Elevated Risk of Exposure

Certain groups of people have an elevated risk of exposure to lead and copper. These groups should be aware of the risks and seek out safe sources of drinking water.

● Children under one year old have not developed the natural mechanism for expelling copper from the human body, and are at an elevated risk for developing toxic symptoms.
● People with Wilson’s Disease also face a higher risk.
● Pregnant women can harm their fetus by drinking water with high lead content. Lead stored in the mother’s bones deposits into the growing fetus’ bones with calcium as they develop, causing long-term problems.

Treatment Plan

Engineering and water quality specialists are on the way to help the school district with a plan of action. They will test the remaining schools, including the charter schools in the district which used to be a part of the public school system. Once the data collection is complete, they will work together on a plan of action. The superintendent believes the solution will be installing water-pumping stations to each school, replacing the current source of water.

This is not the first time the schools have been through testing. During the 2016 controversy of water pipes in Flint Michigan, the school district tested all of the school buildings and 19 of them identified high levels of the heavy metals. According to the Government Accountability Office, 575 of the schools either did not test their water for lead, or were unsure if testing occurred in the school building. There is no federal law governing the testing of water in school buildings, and only seven states have testing requirements. These alarming statistics show there is a developing water crisis in our schools across the nation that must be addressed.