Last year, administrators who oversee public schools in New Orleans couldn’t settle on a way to test drinking water for lead, so they dropped it and decided to install filters.
They plan to test water fountains and kitchen fixtures after the filters are installed. At that point, the tests are virtually guaranteed to show no lead in the water because the filters are certified to remove more than 99 percent of the neurotoxin.
“Where’s the outrage?” asked Gail Fendley, the executive director of Lead Safe Louisiana, after learning the board has not yet signed a contract with the water filter vendor.
“Every time the school board delays a decision of testing water and procuring filters, they continue to put our children at risk for lead poisoning at facilities where they can make a difference,” Fendley said.
The Orleans Parish School Board doesn’t know whether there’s a problem with lead in its schools’ drinking water. It appears that the last time school water was tested was shortly after the Lead Contamination Control Act became law in 1988.
The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans is responsible for checking its water system for lead. Those tests have shown it is in compliance with EPA guidelines.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “strongly recommends” schools test drinking water for lead. State law says schools and daycares are required to provide an environment “free of lead contamination.”
Thursday night, the Orleans Parish School Board budgeted $800,000 for filters on drinking fountains and kitchen faucets.
“What drove us to adding the water filtration systems?” asked board member Leslie Ellison.
Eric Seling, chief operating officer for the school district, said employees considered testing last year, but experts steered them to filters after questions were raised about how the tests would be conducted.
“There were concerns around what the exact testing protocol would look like — whether people would agree with or disagree with testing results,” Seling said. “And so we made the choice for the most conservative approach, to install water filtration systems.”
Documents show that Sewerage and Water Board officials raised questions about the testing plan after the Recovery School District told them about it.
Water board employees said they would want to collect their own samples, spurring the schools’ consultant to wonder if they’d end up with dueling test results.
The schools’ testing plan said they would take action if they found a lead level of 10 parts per billion or more.
Sewerage and Water Board employees said they shouldn’t act unless the reading was at least 20 parts per billion, the EPA’s threshold for school drinking water fixtures.
The school district compromised at 15 parts per billion.
Both are substantially higher than the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to shut off any school water fountain with a lead level higher than 1 part per billion.
A local lead expert has told The Lens that the higher EPA guideline has no medical basis. Exposure to even low concentrations of lead can do lasting damage to children’s brains, research shows.
The Sewerage and Water Board “never discouraged testing at schools,” Tyronne Walker, a spokesman for New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, told The Lens.
Instead, the water board “advised the Recovery School District and Orleans Parish School Board that it was essential that all water testing protocols be in line with the state and federal standards for drinking water.”
Walker also said the water board “recommended all fixtures used for drinking water be tested.” That is not reflected in the documents from the water board and the two school districts.
At Thursday’s board meeting, Seling said the filters will “ensure that the lead levels are certainly below [the] action level by the EPA, which is 15 parts per billion.”
Ellison responded, “In our testing did we find any lead in any of the water at any of the schools?”
Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., who was sitting at the board table, turned to her and said quietly, “We didn’t test.”
Seling also answered. “We opted to do the proactive installation as opposed to testing because we thought there that would be a substantial cost” to test.
It would’ve cost $24,336 to test water at 10 schools. They planned to check similar buildings and water fixtures if they found elevated levels.
At that rate, it would cost about $212,000 to test the district’s 87 school buildings, compared to the $800,000 budgeted for the filters.
But experts say testing isn’t a sure thing. Even if a fixture shows no lead exposure, roadwork can disturb water lines and dislodge lead. Filters, on the other hand, remove almost all of it.
Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and water resources engineering at Virginia Tech University, agreed that filters were the right course of action.
“If they get a good test, it doesn’t prove the water is safe relative to lead,” he said. “What proves the water is safe is if the filter is there and installed properly.”
A certified residential filter costs less than $50, but the systems the school district is buying are more elaborate. They will make the water safe to drink even during “boil water” advisories, which have caused schools to be canceled.
Seling estimated the district would buy between 700 and 1,000 drinking fountain filters. The district is surveying schools to find out how many drinking fountains they have and how many aren’t working.
Seling said the filters will be installed late this year or early next year.
“After the installation of the filters,” he said, “we will test to ensure they are meeting the requirements.”
Asked about what could happen in the time that has passed since the testing was originally proposed more than a year ago, Edwards responded, “Nothing good.”
But after the filters are in, “they will protect kids, and that’s more than we can say for a lot of school systems around the country.”