Filters to remove lead from drinking water will not be installed in New Orleans public schools until 2018, months later than recently estimated and more than a year and a half after plans were announced to test school water for lead.

School leaders abandoned the tests after the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans questioned how they would be handled and recommended allowing more lead in the water before taking action.

So Orleans Parish School Board and Recovery School District leaders decided to install filters instead. That decision was made early this year; it took until July for the Orleans Parish School Board to solicit bids. In September, it picked one of the two companies that submitted bids.

Requiring filters that screen for microbes “will probably increase the costs markedly, since it is relatively rare for low-cost filters to be certified for both lead and bacteria.”—Marc Edwards, Virginia Tech

Now the bidding has started over because the Orleans school district decided the filters offered by the companies weren’t properly certified — not for lead, but for microbes that could enter pipes during a citywide boil-water alert.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who led testing of the Flint, Michigan water system, said the district’s decision to buy a system that filters microbes too could cost 10 times more than one that just treats lead.

“They might be able to pull it off, but I am not aware of any viable off-the-shelf solutions that can achieve all these goals economically,” he wrote.

School leaders opted for filters over testing because filters would be more economical and the water would be virtually assured of being lead-free.

But the Orleans Parish School Board has since decided to test school water lines anyway — after filters are installed.

Bids are now due January 8. Installation would have to start within two months of the contract.

School drinking water last tested in 1989

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 federal Lead Contamination Control Act became law in 1988.

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.”

Exposure to even low concentrations of lead can do lasting damage to children’s brains, research shows.

The Sewerage and Water Board is responsible for checking its water lines for lead. Those tests have shown it is in compliance with EPA guidelines.

But lead can be dislodged from pipes when they’re shaken during roadwork or after a change in water treatment. The city’s Inspector General has criticized the Sewerage and Water Board for not alerting residents to roadwork that could elevate lead levels.

Such spikes concern experts like 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. That’s one reason she said filters are better than tests; certified filters can remove almost all lead.

Edwards also applauded the district’s decision to install filters, saying many school districts in the country have not taken that precautionary step.

Testing plan abandoned for filters

Under the testing plan proposed last year, 10 schools would be sampled. Water fountains would be taken out of service if lead exceeded 10 parts per billion.

The Sewerage and Water Board suggested 20 parts per billion, in line with EPA standards for school drinking water. School administrators settled on 15 ppb.

They’re all much higher than the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that school drinking fountains be shut off at 1 part per billion.

The Sewerage & Water Board wanted to take its own samples, causing the schools’ testing consultant to wonder if they would end up with dueling test results.

The district decided to seek a system that can handle everyday lead levels and the occasional bacterial concern that spurs a citywide boil-water advisory.

The Sewerage & Water Board has issued those notices a few times in the past several years due to power interruptions at the its water treatment plant. When pressure drops in supply lines, bacteria can enter through cracks and leaks. The water must be tested before it’s cleared to drink.

The advisories have caused schools to cancel classes.

That requirement complicates matters, Edwards said.*

“They made a legitimate argument that simply installing lead filters was more cost-effective than testing for lead,” he wrote in an email. “But the new expectations for the filters will probably increase the costs markedly, since it is relatively rare for low-cost filters to be certified for both lead and bacteria.”

A residential under-sink filter certified for lead costs less than $50. The filters offered by the selected bidder cost $584 to $694 for each water fountain, depending on how many are purchased, and $5,999 for each kitchen sink.

The Orleans Parish district has budgeted $800,000 for the filters, which will be installed in buildings it owns.

$584-$694Price for drinking fountain filters under first bid499Minimum number of water fountains that need filters

Bids tossed because they didn’t have microbe certification

The selected system consisted of three filters that worked in tandem: one to reduce lead, another to remove sediment and chlorine, and a third to strain more sediment. The system would shut off the water when the filters had to be changed.

Orleans Parish School Board spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said the problem was microbe certification.

“Though originally approved, equipment specifications for the filters outlined in the bid EcoWater submitted were found to not meet technical requirements following further inspection,” Ellis said. “Therefore the intent to award was revoked.”

The other bid, from New Orleans Water Systems, was disqualified as well. Owner Ahmad Mougrabi said one of the three filters in his package is certified to remove microbes. But he said the school district told him the filters need to be certified as a unit, not individually — which contradicted what he had been told earlier, he said.

The district released the new invitation to bid last week. It requires companies to submit three types of certification: one for reducing the taste of chlorine, one for removing nearly all lead, and one for removing nearly all microbes.

When the district released its bid in July, it didn’t know exactly how many drinking fountains are in its schools. After surveying school leaders, the district raised the minimum number of filters from 299 to 499.

*This story was changed after publication to clarify that the requirement for microbial filtering was included in the school district’s original bid requirements. (Nov. 29, 2017)

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...