In May 2017, a few months before Abby Dumes’ son was to start kindergarten, she thought it was important to check the test results of lead exposure in Ann Arbor Public Schools. This likely would not be a priority of most prospective parents of kindergartners. But Dumes is a medical anthropologist and U-M anthropology lecturer specializing in environmental health.
“I was thinking about environmental health in the context of the Flint water crisis,” she says. “It was on my radar.” In 2016, the first year Ann Arbor Public Schools began testing its water for lead, most drinking fountains and sinks had undetectable levels. But that year only seventy sources were sampled. In 2017, the district expanded the sample to 388 sources, and when Dumes reviewed the results of this initial testing, she was alarmed. Only one of the district’s thirty-two buildings, Huron High, had no detectable levels in any of its sources. Thirty-nine percent had at least one water source that exceeded the EPA “action level”–the threshold recommended to take action to remove lead–of fifteen parts per billion.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality recommends a lower action level, 5 ppb, which is also the FDA standard for bottled water. If the district had used that standard–as Dumes thought it should–79 percent of AAPS buildings would have had at least one source over the limit. One faucet at Burns Park Elementary initially tested at 320 ppb.
Lead is particularly toxic to children, whose bodies absorb significantly more of it than adults, causing major adverse effects to brain development. The American Academy of Pediatrics says there is no safe blood lead concentration level for children and recommends that school water fountains not exceed lead concentrations of 1 ppb.
The Flint water crisis was a cautionary tale. To save money, a state-appointed emergency manager stopped buying water from Detroit and reopened a treatment plant on the Flint River. But the river’s water was more corrosive, and many homes were connected to the city system through old lead pipes. City and state officials insisted the water was safe–but a 2015 study by pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha found that the percentage of young children with elevated levels of lead in their blood doubled after the water change, from 2.4 to 4.9 percent.
Over the last thirty years, federal programs have greatly reduced the risk of lead poisoning from old plumbing and lead-based paint. Even in Flint, the number of children with elevated blood levels fell by nearly three-quarters between 2006 and 2016. But the governmental failure became a global scandal–and focused everyone’s attention on the danger of lead in drinking water.
In October, Dumes, Ecology Center deputy director Rebecca Meuninck, and two pediatricians who are AAPS parents created a petition asking that every source in Ann Arbor Public Schools used for drinking and cooking be tested. It garnered over 1,000 signatures. After an emotional school board meeting dominated by concerned community members speaking on the issue, superintendent Jeanice Swift announced that the district’s lead testing program had been updated “to establish greater than 5ppb (>5ppb) as the level at which we will conduct mitigation action; any drinking water or food preparation locations testing at greater than 5ppb will be taken out of service until mitigation is completed and acceptable test results are achieved.”
Mitigation actions could involve replacing water fixtures, installing lead filters, and possibly replacing water pipes. (Unlike Flint, Ann Arbor’s system contains no lead pipes, but until 1986, copper pipes were joined with lead-based solder.) “We are all hands on deck” now, says Swift.
The district has also begun to install lead filtered “hydration stations” in each school, one for each 100 students in a building. The cost, roughly $1 million, will come from an existing sinking fund for building repair and construction. Swift also convened an advisory group of experts to wrestle with some of “the more subtle components of these issues.”
There are no federal rules requiring testing of drinking water in schools. “Ann Arbor is the only school district I’m aware of in Washtenaw County that is on municipal water and has undertaken this type of proactive effort,” says Kristen Schweighoefer, the county’s environmental health director.
At an October school board meeting, Dumes said the current course of action represents “huge steps on the path to ensuring safe drinking water for every AAPS student.” Meuninck was impressed that as soon as the issues were raised, “the school district acted so quickly and set a precedent for the best practices in the state.”
But Dumes points out that only a portion of water sources have been tested so far and that sources that tested above 5 ppb in 2017 remain in use. “I think the biggest concern is that, while a long-term solution is being pieced together, children and staff continue to drink from tested and untested sources that are at risk for elevated levels of lead,” she emails. “If there are outlets that continue to be on, and there isn’t communication not to use them, they’re going to be used.”
Dumes is particularly troubled that a number of the fixtures that tested over 15 ppb in 2017 were left in service when retests after flushing showed lower levels. She points to an EPA protocol which indicates that flushing prior to sampling can result in artificially low measures of lead levels.
Swift says that the 2017 testing took place in the summer, when water sits stagnant in parts of closed schools, and standard protocol is to flush the water in such situations. She says the Arch Environmental Group, which did the testing, thought the unusually high levels from some of the faucets seemed out of order, so they tested them again. (Arch did not respond to requests for comment.) For example, when the Burns Park faucet tested high on July 27, two more samples were taken. On August 15, the level was down to 10 ppb. On August 16, after the prior day’s flush, the level went down to 5 ppb. The Burns Park faucet remains in use, on the assumption that the initial high level was due to stagnant water.
Swift says every faucet was supposed to be flushed prior to sampling, but it’s likely that eighteen faucets where levels were initially high and came down in subsequent tests had not properly been flushed before the first test. Those sources are still in service. Holly Gohlke, a water quality specialist with the MDEQ, says Arch Environmental’s decision to leave those fixtures in service followed appropriate guidelines. AAPS, she says, is “doing a good job” following guidance from both the EPA and the DEQ.
Seven sources continued to test over 15 ppb in subsequent testing in the summer of 2017. Arch provided assessments of what parts needed to be replaced in those fixtures. Emile Lauzzana, AAPS executive director of physical properties, says that fixtures and immediately adjacent plumbing were replaced in those drinking water sources. The mitigation reduced lead levels under 15 ppb; those fixtures will now be retested, and if they test above 5 ppb additional mitigation will be performed.
Wayne State civil and environmental engineering professor Shawn McElmurry, whose research focuses on the transport of pollutants in urban systems, says that presuming the high levels of lead are due solely to stagnated water and leaving them in service may not be the most prudent approach. Any time a high concentration of lead is found, it indicates a potential source of lead exposure, he says, and the first draw typically reflects sources that are closer to the faucet. But “you can’t guarantee that the lead in the first draw sample is due only to the immediate plumbing”–there could be a lead source farther back in the system.
Dumes remains concerned, she writes, that “AAPS continues to conduct pre-stagnation flushing, or flushing prior to sampling. This is out of step with EPA recommendations and, according to the EPA, ‘may cause results showing lower than representative lead levels in the water.'”
She also wants the district to be more aggressive in restricting access to untrusted sources while testing is conducted, and points to the Detroit Public Schools: In August, after testing found high levels of copper and lead at sixteen schools, DPS shut off all drinking water sources in its system. Swift says AAPS is taking appropriate precautions, since most of its drinking fountains and sinks already are at or below 5 ppb.
Detroit, with its older housing stock, also has a much more serious problem with childhood lead exposure. The Michigan Department of Human Services reports that 8.8 percent of Detroit children tested in 2016 had elevated lead levels–far more than in Flint at the peak of the crisis.
In Washtenaw County, the figure in 2016 was just 1 percent. According to preliminary 2017 figures provided by Schweighoefer, of 1,116 children tested who gave Ann Arbor addresses, just eleven had lead levels over 5 mg.
Given the risks, however, no one wants their child exposed to lead. The challenge, says McElmurry, is that there is there is no single protocol or set of regulations that schools must follow. Stagnant water can allow lead to build up and antibacterial chlorine to decay. “To avoid that, we want clean water to flow through the pipes to consumers as fast as possible,” McElmurry says.
“We have definitely been seeing stagnant water being a factor in elevated lead results,” says Gohlke, the MDEQ water quality specialist. “We are highly recommending that schools do a water moving program in the building on a routine basis.”
Jerome Nriagu, professor emeritus at the U-M School of Public Health, who has published several papers on lead poisoning, isn’t surprised there is an issue with lead in drinking water. “It’s what you would expect in any plumbing system that is thirty to fifty years old,” he says, due to the use of lead solder. He believes there needs to be more effort invested in trying to identify the source of the lead in water. And he’s worried there won’t be enough hydration stations to ensure that all students have easy access to safe water, particularly in a large school like Pioneer High. After they play sports, “they’re very thirsty. They’ll have to get permission to run to the other end of the school to get a drink. It doesn’t make sense to me,” Nriagu says. He suggests an interim measure: equipping every drinking fountain with certified filters. “Filters can bring the lead down to acceptable levels while they’re trying to figure out how to deal” with the problem, he says.
Swift says filters won’t be installed during testing, since doing so would significantly slow the process of ensuring all buildings are tested and that fixtures needing remediation are addressed immediately following the current rounds of testing during this school year. She adds that the plan is to install more hydration stations at high traffic locations, like near the cafeteria or gym or busy hallway intersections–“We will look at how the building is laid out and where there are natural traffic patterns.”
Depending on the size of the school, more than 100 may be installed, she says. There are already some in the schools that were given to the district as gifts from graduating classes.
It’s unclear exactly how long the testing will take to complete. “Our role is to get this done very, very quickly. We are expediting this,” Swift says. Mitigation will begin immediately following a high reading instead of waiting for all testing to be completed.
Swift says AAPS will restrict access to unsafe sources with signs and labels that say “not safe for drinking” for sources that are never intended to be used for drinking, like bathroom sinks. “I do understand the concern of parents who say ‘what if my child goes to a room that has not been used for a while and takes the first drink?'” she says. “We will all be engaged in a fundamental education, teaching and learning process,” spreading the word that it’s important to let a water outlet run for a few seconds before drinking. “They’ll be getting water in a lot of places. It’s the best practice for us to follow no matter where we’re drinking.”
Meuninck believes AAPS is on the right course. With these caveats, she says there’s still work to be done to ensure students and staff know which sources to use and which should be avoided. It’s crucial to avoid a situation where “children are going up to a bubbler [drinking fountain] in a classroom if it’s not a trusted source.” But she points out, “We have a team full of educators who know how to reach children with messaging.”
Swift says she’s confident that AAPS will be a leader in the area of water quality. “We will continue to work on this plan,” she said at an October meeting. “It is our desire to get to the lowest levels. We hope to see a day when it will be zero. That is our goal.”