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Water filters to protect against lead will be installed at most New Orleans schools this fall

The Orleans Parish School Board will install water filters to virtually eliminate lead at all its district-owned schools this fall, according to emails sent to school leaders Wednesday.

“These systems will filter lead from the water supply and will be installed on all water fountains and all kitchen water sources in district owned facilities,” the districts announced.

The announcement came a day after The Lens reported on an aborted plan to test school water for lead.

The Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board said last summer they were acting “proactively” to assess the risk of lead in water supplies.

According to a plan outlined last fall, 10 schools would be tested. Ten to 15 samples would be taken at each school, including the city water connection, a water fountain in the gym, a water source in the kitchen and random samples.

But at some point, the plan was dropped. Asked why, school district representatives simply said that after talking with experts, they decided to install filters that would eliminate lead exposure.

Wednesday’s emails reiterated that point. “Based on the opinion of the experts we consulted, together we decided to move forward with installing filtration systems on all drinking water receptacles in all schools,” wrote Recovery School District Superintendent Kunjan Narechania and Orleans Parish school district Chief Operating Officer Eric Seling in identical emails.

The Orleans Parish had already sought bids for the filters, which are due Monday, but the documents did not say when the filters would be installed.

A document prepared by a school district employee last summer indicated the district planned to install filters at 66 schools, which is about three-quarters of the city’s public schools.

All but four of the schools in New Orleans are charters, which are publicly funded but privately run. Most charters occupy buildings owned by the Orleans Parish School Board, though a handful are housed in private buildings such as churches and synagogues.

One school not covered by the school district’s proposal is ENCORE Academy, which purchased an unused school in the St. Roch neighborhood from the school district.

Terri Smith, CEO and school leader, said all the plumbing was replaced when the building was renovated, but the school has asked OPSB if they can buy filters through the contract.

One of the experts the school district consulted about the testing was Adrienne Katner, a principal investigator with the New Orleans Lead Exposure Assessment for Drinking Water Project and an assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s School of Public Health.

Because they have limited resources, Katner said, it makes sense for schools to focus on remediation, such as installing filters to remove lead. Certified filters can remove 99 percent of lead from water.

While tests are useful, they provide information only on a sample, she said. “It’s important to emphasize water tests are not reliable.”

Children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

State law says any facility where children are cared for, including day cares, must be “maintained free of lead contamination.” That includes paint, soil and water.

The law requires inspections, but it doesn’t appear to require require water tests.

After the federal Lead Contamination Control Act was signed into law in 1988, the Orleans Parish school district tested its water supplies. Two water fountains at district headquarters were turned off, but initial tests at schools did not reveal any problems.

It’s unclear whether local schools have been tested since then. We asked spokeswoman Dominique Ellis on Thursday, and again Monday, when the Orleans Parish School Board had last tested its water for lead.

Tuesday, after our story was published, she responded: “We have no records associated with the Orleans Parish School Board conducting testing of that nature.”

We’ve also asked who’s responsible for testing the water. Ellis hasn’t answered. Instead she told us that the Orleans Parish School Board would install the filters and whoever runs each facility would have to maintain them.

The Lens asked several charter networks Wednesday if they’ve tested their water.

FirstLine Schools conducted lead tests last fall, said Director of Operations Rebekah Cain. She sent test results from five schools to The Lens. None showed elevated levels of lead in the water.

Asked when she first heard of the plan to install filters, Cain said, “I got an email today from the RSD and OPSB.”

ReNEW Schools spokesman Scott Satchfield would not answer a question about whether the charter group had tested water in its schools, saying we should talk to the RSD instead.

The RSD has told The Lens it has not tested schools’ water.

Crescent City Schools has not tested its water, according to Chief Operating Officer Chris Hines.

“We have not felt the need to do this on our own,” he said in an email, “since the RSD/OPSB has a plan to add water filtration systems in all facilities.”

This story was updated after publication to include how many schools the district plans to install filters at.

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