Results from an off-the-shelf lead test performed by a seventh grader at a Homer A. Plessy Community School fountain have prompted the Orleans Parish school district to move up the timetable on installing water filters at the French Quarter school by several months.
Thirteen-year-old Bernard Voss-Potts, who goes by “Berr,” tested the water at his elementary school on Thursday as part of a student NPR podcast challenge.
“I’m doing a podcast on the lead in schools and I thought it’d be cool to test the water here,” he said in an interview Friday as he stood in front of drinking fountains covered with plastic to keep students from drinking the water.
Plessy moved to the McDonogh No. 15 building on St. Philip Street in fall 2017.
“I was a little surprised, because we’ve been here for two years,” he said of the result. “They didn’t even test it when we moved in.”
The results of the test, which looks similar to a pregnancy test, indicated the presence of lead and/or pesticides with two thin blue lines, according Principal Meghan Raychaudhuri.
Raychaudhuri said that while the test doesn’t necessarily meet lab quality standards, the school immediately shut down drinking fountain access and notified the Orleans Parish School Board. She sent a letter to parents Thursday.
“We took the water fountains offline and brought in bottled drinking water,” she said in an interview Friday. “And then Orleans Parish School Board has agreed, on Monday morning, to install water filtration systems.”
Parent Bruce Reilly, whose 10-year-old daughter Kira Love attends Plessy, happened to inquire about filter installation Thursday. As 11:13 a.m., the school was on track to get to receive filters in the summer or fall, Raychaudhuri told Reilly in an email. But a little more than two hours later, things had changed, she wrote in a follow-up email at 1:24 p.m.
“It turns out that one of our 7th grade students is doing an investigative journalism project on lead in drinking water and used an at home test to test the lead levels in our water this afternoon,” she wrote. “I spoke with Orleans Parish School Board once we received the home test results and they will install water filters at Plessy on Monday morning.”
“I had a level of trust in the city that there’d be no environmental contaminants, and there may in fact be none,” Reilly said. “But you can’t know that by not testing.”
The district doesn’t know if it has a problem with lead in its school buildings. It decided to forego testing months after promising to test the water in the wake of the lead-in-water crisis in Flint, Michigan in 2016. After speaking with experts, the district determined filters were a safer way to protect students. The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans’ had also questioned the district’s testing plan.
After problems with the contracting process, it took another year to begin installing the filters. The first filters were installed late last summer, and the project isn’t expected to be finished until this fall. As of late January, the district had installed filters at 30 schools, less than half of the schools it oversees.
The water agency has been criticized for failing to let nearby residents know of construction projects that disturb lead pipes and can knock lead particles loose.
“It’s a disaster to think that we elect people and put certain things in their hands and then to know that they’re just not wanting to know,” Reilly said. “I now have no regrets for how much schools she’s missed or how late she’s been, because it’s less water she’s been drinking.”
The young investigative reporter is also curious about how much of the neurotoxin could be in the water.
“So we don’t know if the lead was there when we moved in, or if its recent,” Voss-Potts said. “I was thinking they’d put a filter on the main water line going into the school.”
But the district has been installing water filters at individual water fountains, not at water lines. It’s unclear if a contract for kitchen filtration has been signed yet.
Orleans Parish schools spokeswoman Ambria Washington confirmed the district is acting fast at Plessy.
“Yesterday, we were notified by school leadership that a student tested the water at the school using an at-home water test as a part of a classroom assignment and the results indicated a possible presence of lead,” Washington said. “Although a credible water test has not been conducted at this time, we will install water filters at the school on Monday as a precaution.”
Still, Reilly is frustrated that it’s taken this long for anyone to take action. He said Voss-Potts’ test is more information than they’ve ever had.
“So it’s on the city now, in my opinion. That the city has to come back and prove this kid wrong.” he said. “So it’s like the city versus the kid.”
“You would think that they’d be thinking about these issues a lot longer than a 7th grader.”
Voss-Potts said he’s contacted Leslie Ellison, his Orleans Parish School Board representative, and school district officials for comment for his podcast.
Reilly is looking forward to learning more.
“Berr is the hero here.”