Dangerously high levels of lead in the Detroit public school system have prompted the city’s Public Schools Superintendent to order the taps in all of the city’s 106 public schools to be closed. Students who started school on Tuesday, Sept. 4, were provided water from coolers and bottled water.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over Michigan’s largest school district last year after it had been under state management for years. He ordered the testing of every water outlet in every public school building in the spring – a decision motivated largely by the water crisis in the neighboring city of Flint that exposed scores of people there to toxic levels of lead.
Incredibly, despite the known dangers posed by an aging infrastructure replete with lead pipes, there is no strict lead water testing in Detroit, nor is there any state policy that could spare thousands of children from the permanent and debilitating effects of lead poisoning.
According to the Associated Press, water utilities are required to check for lead, but they only focus on a small sampling of homes. Such a policy does virtually nothing to guarantee that individual homes and buildings throughout the city have lead-free plumbing or at least properly protected older plumbing.
So while the water coming from the two water systems that serve Detroit – the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department – may be safe to drink, once it passes through the old pipes in many of the schools, business, and homes throughout the city, it may become tainted with lead.
Mr. Vitti told the AP it is “preposterous” that schools aren’t required to test for lead in their water. He also said that Detroit’s problems were indicative of a broader problem of urban centers throughout the U.S. not spending on infrastructure.
That sentiment was echoed by the grandparent of a kindergarten student in the Detroit school system, who told the AP that “In the poorer neighborhoods, in the black neighborhoods we always have a problem with issues of environment. “Look at the water up in Flint . Now, look at the water here. They should have known it was going to be a problem with this old infrastructure.”
Detroit’s 50,000-student public school system isn’t the first to close off its water taps because of contaminated water. In 2016, Portland, Oregon, shut off taps in its schools, which serve 49,000 students, due to dangerously high levels of lead in the water supply. Fountains in most of Baltimore’s 80,000-student districts have been closed off for about 10 years.
According to the AP, just eight states require testing for lead in water in schools and Michigan is not one of them. Michigan governor Rick Snyder proposed a water testing requirement in 2016 “as part of broader changes outlined in the wake of the Flint crisis, for which his administration was primarily blamed,” the AP notes. Yet bills sponsored by Democrats that would mandate the testing have died in the GOP-led Legislature.