New York City has been replacing lead water lines in schools for years. Last month, it launched a website that keeps citizens up to date on its latest tests. And last year, Los Angeles officials designated $19.8 million to retrofit school fountains that tested above acceptable lead levels.
Similarly, Detroit started testing its own school water last month. It just announced elevated lead levels in about one-third of the sampled schools.
“[We] decided to do it as a proactive precautionary measure,” Michelle Zdrodowski, spokeswoman for the Detroit district, told WBEZ.
But in Chicago—a city where most of the water lines are still made of lead—public school officials don’t seem to want to talk about it. WBEZ has submitted questions to the school district and city water department about whether they will or have recently tested for lead in Chicago Public Schools water. No answers.
And technically they wouldn’t be violating any laws if they answered no. Federal law hasn’t required school districts to check for lead in school water since 1996 when a circuit court struck down the requirement.
But in the wake of the recent Flint water crisis, this lack of oversight may come as a surprise.
“When I’ve spoken to parents about this regulatory hole, I’ve never encountered anything else but shock,” said Virginia Tech water researcher and activist Yanna Lambrimidou. “I have not met a parent who is aware that schools can have severe contamination problems and yet school communities and authorities are not required to find those problems and address them.”
School districts are free to test for lead voluntarily
They are even encouraged to do so by the Environmental Protection Agency, which notes in its manual for voluntary testing: “Children are most susceptible to the effects of lead, because their bodies are still undergoing development. The adverse health effects from lead include reduced IQ and attention span, learning disabilities, poor classroom performance, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, impaired growth, and hearing loss.”
In Chicago, it just requires a call to the water department, said Illinois EPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs.
“Especially for Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water has a program where anyone can contact the department and request testing for lead and copper,” she said.
WBEZ’s questions to the city’s water department about whether it has worked with CPS to test school water went unanswered.
Summers off can make lead problems worse
Miguel Del Toral, a water regulations manager at the Midwest office of the U.S. EPA, has conducted tests that suggest current lead testing protocols don’t often catch actual levels in Chicago home water. And when it comes to school water, he says the long periods of non-use can cause extra issues.
“That’s because you have these long stagnation periods every weekend and then stagnation period over the summer,” he said in a conversation we had after a talk he recently gave in Pilsen. “Whenever water’s stagnant, that’s a concern not only potentially from a lead standpoint but from a microbial standpoint as well.”
Even if schools don’t test, Del Toral says they could at least flush pipes in the morning, after weekends and holidays. Los Angeles and New York City have employed such flushing protocols in their schools for years.
“But is the janitorial help actually trained and expected to do this?” asked Henry Henderson who directs the Midwest office of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
WBEZ wrote to Aramark, the company that CPS contracts with for janitorial services, and asked if its janitors flush school water systems. The company referred us to CPS.
But that wasn’t the only question Henderson had on the subject.
“How many water fountains are there?” he asked. “And what kind of testing is being done to make sure you are not inadvertently causing enduring damage to the people who are trying to learn study and improve themselves. These are big questions.”