Drinking fountains at Edgar Harney Elementary School. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

As New Orleans students return to school throughout August, a statement issued by NOLA Public Schools assures the public that 95 percent of all school water fountains will have lead-removal filters, nearly meeting the district’s self-imposed Aug. 1 deadline. 

“By August 1, 2019, all school facilities being occupied by students will have had water filters installed on the vast majority of the water fountains within the school,” said a district statement, issued Wednesday. 

With that news, the more than three-year project to protect Orleans Parish public school students from lead appears to be nearing a close. The effort, sparked by the crisis in Flint, Michigan, has slogged through three unofficial phases. 

“We congratulate OPSB for installing the filters and sincerely hope the mechanism is in place to make sure they are monitored and replaced according to the manufacturer’s guidelines.”—Gail Fendley, Lead Safe Louisiana

First, in 2016, began a yearlong decision-making process that resulted in a shift to filter installation rather than testing for lead, as officials had originally planned. Then came a year of choosing and hiring a filter contractor, a process that was delayed and had to be rebid. And finally, a year of installation issues, including low water pressure that rendered some drinking fountains unusable after filters had been installed, left some filters installed but unconnected and the public largely in the dark. 

“All previously installed water filters that were disconnected due to low water pressure have been reconnected,” the statement said. “In total, 784 water filters at 83 schools have been installed, which means 95% of all the water fountains in our facilities are now filtered.”

The district was able to come close to its Aug. 1 goal after deciding to scrap plans to install antimicrobial filters, instead focusing only on lead filters. The district initially hoped to install filters that would eliminate potentially harmful microbes that might be introduced during the city’s frequent boil-water advisories, which have cancelled school in the past. But that part of the filter required higher water pressure than the city’s water agency is required to provide.

It’s been a long-time coming, Lead Safe Louisiana Executive Director Gail Fendley has said every step of the way. In an email Wednesday, she said children may have been at risk of lead exposure during the project. 

“We congratulate OPSB for installing the filters and sincerely hope the mechanism is in place to make sure they are monitored and replaced according to the manufacturer’s guidelines,” Fendley wrote.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can be especially damaging to young children, causing brain damage and developmental delays. The district doesn’t know if it has a lead-in-water problem. With the notable exception of Homer A. Plessy Community School, it appears the last time school drinking fountains were tested was in the 1980s. 

As the project dragged on this spring, and filters were installed behind schedule, a Plessy student conducted his own water test. The 13-year-old’s off-the-shelf-test revealed a potential presence of contaminants. That prompted the school district to install filters immediately. 

The Sewerage and Water Board says water leaving its Carrollton treatment plant does not contain lead. But lead service pipes or construction can knock loose lead particles along the way and introduce the contaminant to drinking water. Experts say filters are the safest way to protect people. 

The district still has some work to do and apparently some school drinking fountains were missed in the district’s initial survey. 

“The remaining 5% of fountains need to be repaired by schools before installations can be finalized,” the statement said. 

“The district is working with schools that have remaining water filter installation needs to ensure required repairs are complete and overlooked water fountains have filters installed before students return.”

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...