Detroit public schools shut off drinking water due to ‘elevated levels’ of lead, copper

Water fountains in the lunchroom of Crestwood Elementary School on Friday, August 10, 2018 in Tampa. [TAILYR IRVINE   |   Times]
Water fountains in the lunchroom of Crestwood Elementary School on Friday, August 10, 2018 in Tampa. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]
Published August 30 2018
Updated August 30 2018

Less than a week before classes are scheduled to resume, Detroitís city school district announced Wednesday that drinking water will be shut off for all its schools due to concerns over above-normal levels of lead and copper.

The decision comes after tests of various water sources at 16 out of 24 schools showed elevated amounts of the potentially toxic heavy metals, according to a statement from Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent Nikolai Vitti to local media. With the goal of ensuring the safety of students and employees, Vitti said he began testing everything from sinks to water fountains at all 106 of the districtís schools last year, the Detroit Free Press reported.

"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 in the statement.

RELATED:The Hillsborough School District found lead in its water.

On Tuesday water at the 16 schools was shut off and bottled water provided until water coolers can arrive, Vitti said, according to the Free Press. The total number of schools with contaminated water in the district is now at 34 as 18 other schools already had their water shut off.

The remaining schools will have their water turned off this week, Vitti said, according to Detroit News. Staff and families were made aware of the decision Tuesday via automated phone calls, Detroit News reported.

Mia Jones, whose child attends Cass Technical High School, one of the schools, told WJBK that the situation should have been handled before it got this bad.

"These are high achieving students, and not just because this is Cass, all Detroit public schools," Jones said. "They deserve to be able to drink the water."

Water quality has been an ongoing challenge for cities in Michigan, becoming the focus of national attention in 2014 with the Flint water crisis. In Flint, Mich. thousands were exposed to water that had high levels of lead and other pollutants.

A recent Tampa Bay Times investigation found that the Hillsborough County School District didnít tell parents for more than a year that it was discovering high levels of lead in some schoolsí drinking water. The investigation also focused on many results that registered under 15 parts of lead per billion, the cutoff the district used for disclosing and taking action, and quoted experts saying that lower levels of leads can be unsafe for children.

After the Times investigation was published, the school district announced that it will accelerate how quickly it is testing school drinking and cooking water for lead. It also said it would begin publicly disclosing all locations where it finds lead in schoolsí water, not just the samples that tested highest.RELATED:Hillsborough School District will speed up lead testing, following Times investigation

Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems and children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable, according to the Mayo Clinic. Beyond learning and behavior problems, lead exposure can impact physical development, and in some cases, be fatal.

Drinking water with high levels of copper can also have adverse health consequences, including vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and nausea. Copper toxicity has been associated with liver and kidney failure.

"I havenít made this decision based on the Flint situation," Vitti told WJBK. "Iím making this decision because I feel like itís the best decision for children."

Water professionals said the issue in Detroit schools isnít the water per se, but aging school infrastructure, namely old plumbing. Lead and copper can enter drinking water when service pipes containing the metals corrode, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In a joint statement, the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department assured residents and customers in the area that "they are not affected by the lead and copper issues that the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) is experiencing."

Hillsborough schools will begin disclosing more data about lead in drinking water

The statement touted the hourly testing of water at treatment plants and noted that water distributed to any school district building does not go through "lead service lines."

"The drinking water is of unquestionable quality," the statement said.

Chrystal Wilson, a school district spokesperson, told Detroit News that Vitti had asked Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday to convene a special task force to solve the water quality issue.

Until it is determined that the water is safe for drinking, schools will be provided with bottled water from the Great Lakes Water Authority, Detroit News reported. The school district serves more than 47,000 students, according to its website.

"The water will be turned off in all the schools until we find a solution for all schools," Wilson said.