When Chicago Public Schools chief Forrest Claypool explained the city’s reasons for testing water in 28 Chicago schools last month, he was cautious.
“We have no indication there is any risk,” he said. “But we are going to do a thorough… first starting with a pilot program and then taking it from there based on the findings to make sure—out of an abundance of caution and nothing else— those water sources are safe.”
The sites CPS is checking include school kitchens and water fountains. There staff will be taking what’s called “the first draw” or about the first cup of water that comes out of the taps each morning after several hours of non-use.
This “first draw” collection method follows the recommendations of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for voluntary school water testing. Only districts that operate their own water system—rather than drawing from a municipal system—are required to check their water. But water experts say the first draw doesn’t always tell the whole story.
“The first draw is taking a look at the actual faucet itself,” says Tom Poy, chief of drinking water for the EPA’s Region 5 Midwest office. “But there could be other components in the plumbing that could contribute lead, like shut off valves or washers or things like that. So additional sampling will look for other sources of lead.”
That additional sampling could mean collecting at least one more cup of water about 45 seconds after the first sample—or several subsequent ‘draws.’ The goal is to see how plumbing inside the building walls is affecting lead levels. It’s called sequential sampling and it’s the approach used by New York City and Detroit’s school districts. Representatives in Detroit say they only submit the second sample if elevated levels are found in the first draw. And New York says that its second sample shows elevated lead levels much less often than the first.
When the Flint Drinking Water Task Force was advising that city on school water testing last fall, it wrote, “It is essential to have proper baseline data from throughout the school plumbing, not just the endpoints, to assess the risk as well as the progress of treatment. The best sampling protocol for that would be sequential sampling conducted at 2 or 3 locations in each school. The sequential sampling results would enable an ongoing assessment of the effectiveness of treatment throughout the plumbing network over time. This type of an assessment is not possible to do with single samples.”
Still, Poy with the Midwest EPA calls CPS’ willingness to begin testing at its schools, “a good start.” He also notes that most of the lead in Flint school fountains was traced to the fixtures themselves. Thus their lead levels could be detected in the first draw.
Poy says he thinks the CPS testing could yield some good information. But it’s based on the assumption that the district has picked “a representative sample of schools as far as how old the schools are and which ones have had work done as far as renovations and the age of the fixtures that are in the various schools.”
CPS officials say they have considered the age of the school pipes in their choice of pilot schools. But they haven’t answered WBEZ questions about how many schools may be hooked up to lead water service lines. It’s a factor that could make sequential testing even more important. That’s because lead contamination from the lines might not show up until a few minutes after taps start running depending on pressure and the distance between the water main and the tap.
Schools CEO Claypool says these pilot tests in 28 schools will help determine future action in the district. Until then, he said, the district will hold off on measures like morning pipe flushing that have been used to reduced lead levels in New York City and Los Angeles schools for years.
“I think we need to do the pilot first,” he said. “…We will quickly learn if anything needs to be done along those lines. Hopefully nothing will need to be done.”
With so much riding on these pilot tests, many parents and water watchers are curious about exactly how they are proceeding. But for now, district leaders are revealing few details. CPS officials say they expect to release initial test results by the middle of this month.