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GAO report: After Flint, fewer than half of U.S. schools test for lead in drinking water

Running faucet
Melissa Benmark
Michigan Radio

A reportreleased by the Government Accountability Office earlier this week says that only 43% of school districts nationwide tested for lead in their drinking water in 2016 or 2017. Only eight states mandate such testing from schools, and Michigan is not one of them.

The GAO summarizes the findings of the new report on its website, writing, “41% of districts, serving 12 million students, had not tested for lead in the 12 months before completing our survey. 43% of districts, serving 35 million students, tested for lead. Of those, 37% found elevated levels and reduced or eliminated exposure. 16% did not know if they had tested.”

Currently, only Michigan schools that get water from their own well are required to annually test it for lead and copper. All other schools test for lead on a voluntary basis.

A bill was introduced by State Representative Adam Zemke in January 2017. It would require Michigan public schools to test for lead in drinking water. The bill has not been put up for a vote in the 18 months since it was introduced.

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, the state Legislature set aside almost $4.3 million in the 2016-2017 fiscal year to reimburse schools for voluntarily testing their water. Only about $420,000 of this funding was actually used, and the program was canceled the following year.

Kyle Guerrant is a Deputy Superintendent for the Michigan Department of Education. He says Governor Snyder originally wanted $9 million set aside, but it was cut down to less than half of that amount.

Guerrant also says the legislation that passed did not allow for a “tiering system,” meaning every school was given the same amount of money, regardless of size or student population.

“A district was going to get the same amount of reimbursement for testing water in a high school that has, typically, a larger building, more drinking water stations or faucets or other parts of the building,” Guerrant says. “So it would cost more to do testing there than elementary school buildings.”

Each school in the state was only able to receive up to $950 from this program. School districts also had to fill out a grant application in order to receive that money for their schools in the first place. Out of 1,441 eligible school districts, 1,279 did not even submit an application. 130 schools did receive the funding, and almost 9,000 water tests were conducted. 14.29% of those tests found "elevated levels of lead."

When the program was canceled the next year, some of the leftover funding was repurposed for what Guerrant describes as a “healthy water campaign.” The campaign will be run by the Michigan Department of Education, in partnership with the Department of Environmental Quality. It's set to launch in the fall and provide schools with “technical assistance and resources on how they can ensure that they have a safe drinking water program in their schools.”