Mandate annual school water quality testing

September 1, 2016

Lead and copper contamination discovered in at least a dozen Oakland County school districts makes clear the need for water quality testing to be required in Michigan schools, and for state lawmakers to provide adequate funding for water sampling.

Public water suppliers since 1991 have been required to test a smattering of water taps in their communities for lead and copper levels. Federal law requires that 90 percent of those taps tested fall under a concentration of less than 15 parts per billion (ppb) for lead, and under 1,300 ppb for copper. Those requirements, however, offer little evidence as to whether the plumbing at local schools are leaching contaminants into water being used by children, staff and visitors. Currently, there is no requirement for schools to test water for lead and copper on public drinking water supplies. It is a glaring oversight of the federal law, which is intended to protect populations most at risk for lead and copper poisoning: children.

In light of the Flint water crisis, some districts and private schools have taken to conducting their own water sampling programs on a voluntary basis, and at their own cost. Those results have since shown that lead and copper contamination at schools is far greater than suggested by annual water reports issued by local municipalities.

In April, governor Rick Snyder announced a series of reforms he hoped would be taken up at the state level to address water quality, including requiring all school districts in the state to test their water for lead and copper. The call to action instead put a freeze on legislation introduced months earlier by Republican state senator Rick Jones, which would require districts to conduct water sampling for lead and copper.

While Jones said the governor's plan would supposedly provide greater safety assurances than his bill, no alternative has been introduced by lawmakers. Rather than waiting for a new bill, we urge lawmakers in the senate's governmental affairs committee to take up Jones' proposal, which provides a beginning for testing requirements in the state. 

Testing requirements should be applied to all public schools, as well as private and parochial schools. Parents should be assured that the schools they send their children to have safe potable water. We believe that testing should be conducted on a rotating basis each year, with all potable drinking water taps – drinking fountains and cafeteria sinks – tested once every two years. So that there is no excuse for schools abrogating their responsibility, we believe it is critical that lawmakers providing a plan to require such testing also provide the funding at the state level so districts, as required under the Headlee Amendment adopted by voters years ago. And districts should make the results available to the public on their websites in clear language any layman can easily understand.

If state lawmakers are truly concerned about protecting the most at-risk population in the state, lead and copper testing must include all childcare facilities in the state. Michigan already requires childcare operations to be licensed by the state. With the number of parents working and utilizing childcare facilities, how can the drinking water at those buildings not be at least below the federal action limit for lead and copper?

And, while we believe state funds should be provided for testing at school districts, most childcare facilities, which are an individual business or in a home, tend to have far fewer drinking water locations than a school district. Therefore, it's appropriate to require testing at childcare facilities as a cost of doing business. 

Currently, the ability to fund water sampling programs, as well as the lack of uniformity on sampling guidelines and uncertainty on future requirements is causing some school districts to forego or limit testing in their buildings. Quick and clear action on the issue at the state level is therefore needed to protect students as quickly as possible, and we would expect state lawmakers from Oakland to help lead the charge on this issue. 

While some legislators and school districts may be willing to wait for the governor to push his plan, we are not. The health and safety of our children are too important for a wait-and-see attitude.

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