DETROIT — Detroit’s city school district is shutting off drinking water to all of its schools after test results found elevated levels of lead or copper in 16 of 24 schools recently tested.
In a statement Wednesday, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti of the Detroit Public Schools Community District said he had initiated water testing in all 106 school buildings in the spring to ensure the safety of students and employees. Water at 18 schools previously had been shut off because of high levels of the heavy metals.
“Although we have no evidence that there are elevated levels of copper or lead in our other schools where we are awaiting test results, out of an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of our students and employees I am turning off all drinking water in our schools until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools,” Vitti said.
The school district serves almost 50,000 students.
Both lead and copper leach into drinking water primarily through corroded pipes and other plumbing fixtures, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Health problems can range from stomach aches to brain damage.
The EPA ceiling for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion, and even 5 ppb can be a cause for concern. For copper, the limit is 1.3 parts per million.
The human body needs a trace amount of copper to function, but no amount of lead is safe, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s especially true for children because a smaller amount can be potent in a small body and because their bodies and brains are developing rapidly.
“This was not required by federal, state or city law or mandate,” Vitti said. “This testing, unlike previous testing, evaluated all water sources from sinks to drinking fountains.”
The Detroit Free Presswas shadowing Vitti on a day in May when the issue of water quality in the schools came up during a cabinet meeting. Earlier that day, Vitti had learned that test results at several schools had come back showing elevated lead levels.
“I’m not playing around with this. … It’s a safety issue,” Vitti said during that meeting.
The district’s building problems have been a constant source of frustration for Vitti. Earlier this summer, Vitti released details from a facilities review that found the district would need to spend $500 million now to fix the poor conditions in its schools.
That price tag would rise to $1.4 billion in five years if the district did nothing.
In May, Vitti said the district didn’t make the right investments in facilities while it was under the control of state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 to 2016. Vitti became superintendent in May 2017.
“It’s sending the message to students, parents and employees that we really don’t care about public education in Detroit, that we allow for second-class citizenry in Detroit,” Vitti said then. “And that hurts my heart and it angers me and it frustrates me that I can’t fix it right now.”
At the 16 schools with elevated copper and/or lead levels discovered last year, the district took immediate action.
“I immediately turned off the drinking water at those schools and provided water bottles until water coolers arrive,” Vitti said.
Now nearly a third of the city’s school building have tested positive for excessive lead and copper levels. Not all of the sites have been tested yet.
Water fountains and other drinking-water sources likely will be shut off at all schools by the end of this week and certainly before the school year begins Tuesday, said Chrystal Wilson, school district spokeswoman.
Vitti said he had notified Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan of his decision.
“The mayor’s office plans to partner with us to determine challenges with water quality in our schools and solutions to them,” Vitti said.
The mayor is fully supportive of Vitti’s approach and has offered to help through the city’s health and water departments, said John Roach, a spokesman for Duggan.
“We also will be reaching out to charter (school) operators in the coming days to work with them on a possible similar testing strategy to the voluntary one Dr. Vitti has implemented,” Roach said in a statement. Detroit has 15 charter schools, independently run public schools, and some of them use buildings that had been traditional public schools.
Detroit’s water department and the regional water and sewer agency for southeast Michigan, the Great Lakes Water Authority, also issued a statement to assure residents that the lead and copper contamination with water in the school buildings do not extend to the pipes that deliver water to customers’ homes.
“Aging school infrastructure, i.e. plumbing, is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water,” the joint statement said.
Water that the authority treats surpasses all federal and state standards, according to the statement. Water at the agency’s treatment plants and is tested hourly and Detroit’s water district has no lead pipes connected to any Detroit school buildings.
Engineering and water-quality experts will help the school district understand the cause of the water problems and help solve them, Wilson said.
This isn’t the first time the district has tested school buildings for elevated levels of lead and copper. In 2016, at the height of the controversy over lead in home water pipes in Flint, Michigan, testing in Detroit found 19 schools with elevated lead levels in drinking water.