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Michigan must ensure there's no lead in school drinking water, report finds

Boy drinking water from a water fountain in a park. He wearing a yellow shirt, a backpack, and blue jeans.
Ana - stock.adobe.com

Michigan has earned a failing grade for its efforts to combat lead contamination in school drinking water, according to a new national report.

“Nearly a decade after the advent of the Flint water crisis, Michigan still has no law or regulation to stop lead contamination of schools’ drinking water,” conclude the report’s authors, with the Environment America Research & Policy Center and the U.S. Public Research Interest Group Education Fund.

While the researchers praise Detroit schools for working to install hundreds of filtered water stations across the school district, they award only partial credit for Michigan’s plan to replace every lead service line in the state by 2041. “Twenty years is a long time, but at least it’s an enforceable deadline,” says John Rumpler, senior director of the Clean Water for America Campaign and an attorney with Environment America.

“We need that same approach of across-the-board prevention when it comes to schools and their water,” he said. “Because … we may not have a lot of schools with lead service lines, but we do have, in most of our schools, faucets, fountains, plumbing, valves, all kinds of water delivery system infrastructure that has enough lead in it to contaminate the water that our kids drink.”

While health officials say the biggest threat of lead poisoning in children comes from inhaling or ingesting soil, dust, or paint found in older homes, millions of children may be at risk for lead exposure from their school’s drinking water, according to a 2019 reportfrom Harvard’s T.H. Chan School for Public Health. Looking at tests from more than 10,000 schools in multiple states, researchers found 44% of those schools had lead levels at or above their states’ action levels.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics says there is “no safe level of lead exposure in children,” there are “lasting decreases in cognition documented in children with blood levels as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood," and "research shows students with elevated tooth lead levels are more inattentive, hyperactive, disorganized, and less able to follow directions at school, with one study showing higher drop-out rates and reading disabilities. Elevated bone lead levels were associated with increased attentional dysfunction, aggression, and delinquency.”

But testing alone cannot solve the problem, Rumpler said. “Why not just test the water and fix the places where lead is confirmed? The reason is, as we found out in Flint and elsewhere, lead testing is wildly variable, due to age and temperature and how long the water has been sitting in contact with lead. You can get wildly different results as to whether there is lead in the water and how much lead is in the water. This is why one expert who you've probably heard of, Marc Edwards at Virginia Tech, has referred to lead testing as ‘Russian roulette.’"

“I don't think our kids’ water in Michigan or elsewhere should be subject to Russian roulette. Instead, we should be ensuring that every single time a child fills up her water bottle at a school, that it is safe to drink. And that's why the ‘filter first’ bills are so important,” Rumpler said.

That so-called “filter first” legislation, which was passed by thestate senate last year with bipartisan support, would require schools and daycares to install “filtered drinking water outlets and on-tap filters and ensure non-filtered outlets are removed or not used,” according to the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. It would also require them to test the water each year, and create a state fund to help schools and daycares cover the costs.

While the legislation was not passed during the previous legislative session, similar legislation has been reintroduced and has been referred to the Committee on Energy and the Environment. If those “bills become law, they would boost the Great Lakes State’s grade from an F to an A,” the report finds. Spokespeople for the Senate Republicans and Democrats did not immediately respond to questions about reintroducing the legislation.

Asked about the new report, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) said the department supports the “filter first” legislation.

“Municipalities throughout the state are replacing their lead service lines at an average rate of 5% per year,” said spokesperson Scott Dean via email. “This program has already resulted in the replacement of virtually every lead service line in communities like Flint and Benton Harbor. … Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule is also tougher than federal standards and we are dropping the standard for taking action from the federal level of 15 ppb to 12 ppb in 2025."

“Michigan also has a program specifically created to assist schools in reducing lead levels within their facilities," Dean said. The state's voluntary Healthy Water Healthy Kids program uses guidance from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and meets many of the scoring elements outlined in the report."

Dean said the state is making progress. "We recently worked with partners to see lead-filter hydration stations installed in Benton Harbor schools. That work continues throughout the state.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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