DETROIT (AP) — Detroit's hard-pressed school system has found elevated levels of lead and copper in nearly a third of its elementary schools, contamination that one expert says could be found nationwide, wherever school authorities spend the time and money to look.
The news gave parents in the 46,000-student district yet another reason to worry, and prompted the teachers' union to appeal for help from autoworkers, who trucked bottled water to a school where some students were drinking from bathroom sinks after the water fountains were shut down as a precaution.
"Our students want water all day long," Detroit teachers' union president Ivy Bailey said Thursday.
Nine of every 10 schools and day care centers in the U.S. are not required to test for lead contamination under federal law, since their water is already tested by municipal suppliers. But like most other school districts nationwide, Detroit has aging buildings with lead pipes and water fixtures that have parts made with lead — and that's where the trouble lies.
The testing was prompted by the crisis in Flint, where lead flowed from taps after state authorities switched that city's water supply from Detroit's system to the Flint River to save money. About 8,000 Flint-area children under age 6 have potentially been exposed to lead.
In Detroit, school officials discovered that even though the municipal water complies with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, elevated levels of lead and some of copper were found in the drinking water fountains or kitchens at 19 of the 62 schools tested so far.
"It provides clear evidence that schools have to be proactive in finding and fixing these problems — it is not going to go away by itself," said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor who helped expose Flint's water crisis.
"Because the harm from lead is irreversible, finding and fixing lead in school problems is good news. The alternative is to do nothing and be willfully blind and allow even more harm to occur," Edwards added.
Lead is a neurotoxin that can damage child brain development, cause behavioral problems and sicken adults. Copper can cause gastrointestinal distress, and long-term exposure can damage the liver or kidneys.
District spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski characterized the levels of lead and copper as concerning but "by no means excessive or extreme."
On the high end, a lead sample from a water fountain at Brown Academy showed 1,500 parts per billion — 100 times the EPA limit of 15 parts per billion. Water from a kitchen sink at Priest Elementary-Middle School showed copper levels of 3,400 parts per billion — nearly three times the EPA limit of 1,300 parts per billion.
"What we want parents to know is that we did this because we want to provide the best, safest learning conditions for our students and really safe working conditions for our staff," Zdrodowski told The Associated Press.
The rest of the district's 93 buildings, where middle and high schoolers are taught, will be screened over the next two weeks, and the schools already showing elevated levels will get more intensive testing by an environmental consulting firm, she said.
Schools and child care centers across the country are testing classroom sinks and cafeteria faucets in the wake of the Flint crisis, trying to uncover problems and reassure parents. But few are as financially pressed as Detroit Schools, which is paying for half of the $50,000 testing cost from its district budget and using a city grant for the rest.
Michigan lawmakers recently approved $48.7 million in emergency funding just to keep Detroit schools open this academic year. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder also is pushing a $720 million school restructuring plan to pay off the district's operating debt, and wants to spend $18 million over two years to test water in every state school.
The district, meanwhile, is working on detailed mitigation plans, to be shared with the Detroit Health Department to make sure all proper actions are taken, the spokeswoman said.
"There's no legal mandate that we had to do this," Zdrodowski said. "We just understood, given the time that we're in and the circumstances that are facing — not only the state of Michigan but across the United States — that this was the right thing for us to do at the right time."
Parents are taking action, too.
Each of James Hardwick's three daughters grabbed bottled water Thursday before they left home for nearby Sampson-Webber Leadership Academy, where elevated lead levels were found. The school shut down its water system after some students were drinking from restroom sinks, prompting the teacher's union to reach out to UAW-Ford for help. The autoworkers' union soon delivered pallets of bottled water.
"The first thing I told my kids was, 'No more drinking from the fountains in the school,'" said Hardwick, 32. "They pretty much understood it."
The federal government requires testing only by those schools and child care systems that operate their own water systems. A recent analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data by the AP found that 278 of these had violated federal lead standards at some point during the past three years.
An estimated 90,000 schools and child care centers nationwide face no federal testing requirement, leaving most children in buildings that are unchecked and vulnerable, because lead particles can build up in plumbing when water goes unused over weekends and school breaks.
Associated Press writer David Eggert in Lansing contributed to this report.