Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning. State law requires child-care facilities, like schools, to be lead-free. Credit: Jeff Boyd / Flickr

A year ago, New Orleans school officials announced a proactive plan to test lead levels in school water lines.

But the tests were never done.

Instead, the Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District decided to install water filters to eliminate lead.

But that, too, hasn’t been done. Vendors have until next Monday to submit bids.

Last month, the New Orleans Inspector General reported that the city should do more to protect residents from lead exposure. The city has started $2.4 billion in infrastructure projects, which can disturb water lines and dislodge lead particles.

Children are more susceptible to lead poisoning than adults, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Schools are back in session now. Some students have been back for weeks.

[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]State law says any facility where children are cared for, including day cares, must be free of lead contamination. That includes paint, soil and water.[/module]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 school water. Two water fountains at district headquarters were turned off, but initial tests at schools did not reveal any problems.

It’s unclear when local school water systems were last tested for lead. Dominique Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish school district, didn’t answer our question.

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]It’s unclear when local school water systems were last tested for lead. Dominique Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish school district, didn’t answer our question.[/module]We asked the Orleans Parish School Board for the results of any water tests since 2016. The only document provided was for a test at Lusher Charter School, which was done in January after an employee “reported a suspicious odor” at a drinking fountain.

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 few are housed in private buildings such as churches and synagogues.

The Orleans Parish School Board is responsible for the buildings’ capital repairs; charter schools are in charge of maintenance. Ellis didn’t answer our question about who is responsible for testing school water.

City spokeswoman Erin Burns said the Sewerage and Water Board has not tested water quality in schools. She said the agency is doing an inventory of the city’s 140,000 or so public water service lines, including schools, to determine which are composed of lead.

First, a plan

In July 2016, New Orleans’ two school districts assured the public they had been “proactively” working with a company “to design a lead risk assessment of water in Orleans Parish schools.”

The announcement was made the same day six state employees in Michigan were charged with crimes related to lead contamination in Flint’s water pipes.

The state-run Recovery School District, which oversees many charters in the city, and the Orleans Parish School Board said the work would begin that fall. It would “identify health and safety risks, as well as the source of any contamination.”

They chose 10 schools to test, according to a document obtained by The Lens through a public records request.

10Schools were to be tested last fall$24,336Total estimated cost

Ten to 15 samples were to 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.

If any of those schools tested above the EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion, further testing would be done and water use would be limited. Among the possible steps: supplying other sources of water and coming up with other plans for hand-washing and cooking.

The testing was to be done by Materials Management Group, which already had a contract with the Recovery School District.

The company estimated the testing would cost $2,433.60 per school, or $24,336 for the 10 schools.

The documents don’t outline a plan to test every school in the city. They only say that high test results at any school would result in testing of “like-kind buildings and fixtures.”

As of November, employees at the two school districts were emailing one another about how to move forward with the testing plan, according to public records obtained by The Lens.

Plans change

However, RSD Deputy Chief of Staff Laura Hawkins said the district decided not to test after speaking to two water quality experts in late 2016.

She said the experts “advised on a different strategy that involved proactively mitigating any potential lead risk.”

“It’s important to emphasize water tests are not reliable.”—Adrienne Katner, Louisiana State University School of Public Health

“The two districts together have made the decision to take preventative action at all schools regardless of their lead levels as opposed to testing each school,” Hawkins said in an email. “Applying filtration systems to drinking water sources will eliminate the risk of lead in all schools.”

Ellis said in an email that filters are “the most effective and aggressive approach.”

One of those experts 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.”

“Applying filtration systems to drinking water sources will eliminate the risk of lead in all schools.”—Laura Hawkins, Recovery School District

That’s especially true in schools, where water sits in pipes over weekends and holidays. “That’s when you’re going to get peaks” in lead levels, she said.

She did criticize the EPA’s 15 ppb “action level,” which the districts planned to use as a guide in their testing. That threshold “has no medical value,” she said.

Various pediatric groups recommend much lower levels for fetuses, infants and children. In a recent policy paper, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended school water fountains have less than 1 ppb of lead.

The other expert consulted was Paul Lo, president and senior environmental scientist for Materials Management Group, the company that worked with the districts to design the testing plan. He declined an interview with The Lens.

Bids sought for water filters

The Orleans Parish School Board announced in July it was looking for a company to install water filters.

The bid specifications said companies should expect to install at least 299 filters. A document prepared by a school district employee last summer indicated the district planned to install filters at 66 schools.

These filters are more sophisticated than the kind you would install at your kitchen sink. They must have three different filters to remove sediment and lead, and they must shut off water automatically when the filter needs to be replaced.

They also must be able to be used during “boil water” advisories, which have occurred several times in the last few years after power outages have caused the city’s water pressure to drop. Schools have canceled classes when that happened.

Ellis did not respond to our question about when the filters will be installed, and the documents don’t specify a timetable.

Katner recommended the district test the water for lead after the filters are installed.[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]Katner recommended the district test the water for lead after the filters are installed. “It would be a good idea just to make sure they are working.”[/module]

“It would be a good idea just to make sure they are working,” she said. “I would probably just test it on the oldest drinking fountain” at each school.

The new plan was apparently a surprise to some school leaders.

Earlier this month, a school employee at Audubon Charter School emailed administrators to say CEO Latoye Brown wanted the water tested at its two campuses.

“Did OPSB have all of the water tested at schools recently?” asked Alisa Davillier Dupré as she emailed the request to Ken Ducote, head of the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools.

The next day, an Orleans Parish School Board employee responded to Ducote with a link to the bid for the filters, saying, “The decision was made that adding filtration to drinking fountains and in the kitchen would be the best approach.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...