What Three Local School Districts Found When They Tested Their Water For Lead

Aug 16, 2018

This faucet at the Kalamazoo Public Schools' Community Education Center replaced one that sampled high for lead.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Al Tyler is not usually a night owl, but he became one for a few weeks in 2016. Tyler is the head of facilities management at the Kalamazoo Public Schools. KPS wanted to test its buildings’ water sources for lead contamination.

“We did drinking fountains, classrooms if they had bubblers - which is kind of a little drinking fountain on the side of the sink - we did kitchens where they would do food prep,” Tyler said.

The district says that it began flushing schools’ pipes to head off lead contamination in the mid-1990s. But when they learned about the Flint water crisis, officials wanted to know if certain fixtures were leaching lead. Tyler says the water has to sit for hours before testing, to get a representative sample.

“So by us starting at midnight, school generally being about by three we were pretty sure that all the devices were at rest and we would get accurate samples,” he said.

Not every school district tests its water for lead. In a recent survey, the Government Accounting Office found that only 43 percent of US schools had definitely sampled for the contaminant in the last year. But KPS did extensive lead testing in 2016. The Battle Creek Public Schools have also tested many fixtures, in a program that began before news of the Flint crisis broke statewide.

As of this spring, the Portage schools had done a few tests, but not nearly as many as Kalamazoo or Battle Creek. 

Many districts that do test for lead find that at least a few of their faucets or drinking fountains are releasing the toxic metal into the water. The GAO report found that about 40 percent of U.S. schools that sampled their water last year had some “elevated” lead levels.

Some schools might find the cost of lead testing prohibitive. KPS says it spent more than $50,000 to test its water. Gary Start is KPS’ deputy superintendent for business.

“We thought it was really important to do these tests and we made an investment out of our general fund,” he said.

The state legislature later set aside some money to reimburse districts for lead tests. But Bridge Magazine reported that that amount would not have covered the costs for many schools. And it says the funds went largely unused before they came back off the table.

Battle Creek Superintendent Kimberly Carter wasn’t with the district then. But she says she thinks that Calhoun County paid for lead sampling at school buildings.

“At that time in 2014 and 2015 we tested a total of 150 water sources,” she said.

Carter says the Battle Creek schools tested fixtures in every school that was open, “and even some of our closed buildings.”

Carter says seven water sources came back with more lead than the federal limit of 15 parts per billion. Some samples had several times that amount. About five percent of all the drinking water fixtures tested showed high lead levels.

“The seven sources that had elevation were fixed and then retested,” Carter said.

At the Kalamazoo Public Schools, the district tested more than 500 fixtures, including faucets in a kitchen at the Community Education Center on Westnedge Avenue, where students were washing vegetables for a cooking class with instructor Kharen Shelton this spring.

Records show that 23 fixtures at KPS buildings tested high for lead in at least one of two samplings. That’s about five percent of all fixtures.

Perhaps surprisingly, facilities supervisor Al Tyler says KPS’ oldest buildings were not the most problematic.

“The older buildings at some point, most of them had renovations and changes made and fixtures added or updated so it was that group of early 50s to early 60s that we got the positive results,” he said.

Positive as in high for lead. KPS records indicate the district has either disconnected or replaced the 23 fixtures that tested over the EPA limit.

At the Portage Public Schools, Assistant Superintendent of Operations Ron Herron says the district has done “spot” testing for water quality in recent years.

“Where either we are doing construction in an area, or if we’re getting a report that somebody might be having some illness in a building or something, then we would request testing,” he said.

This winter PPS collected samples for lead tests that Herron described as the district’s most thorough in five years. None of the samples came back over the federal limit. But records show that Portage schools collected just 10 water samples, far fewer than either Battle Creek or Kalamazoo. And Portage didn’t test every building. But Herron indicates that the issue will soon be moot for some drinking fountains.

“Many of them are just original fixtures to the building and need to be replaced,” he said.

Herron says Portage had already replaced some of those fixtures by this spring, and it plans to replace more drinking fountains by the end of this summer.