School & District Management

A New (and Cheaper) Approach to Lead-Free Drinking Water in Schools

By Mark Lieberman — October 16, 2023 6 min read
Vintage metal water fountain in a public school changing room.
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States for years have required schools to test for lead in drinking water, even as administrators say the undertaking can be expensive, time-consuming, and stressful.

Now, Michigan is poised to lead the nation in adopting a new approach that experts believe will help schools address lead in water more quickly, effectively, and cheaply.

Both chambers of the Michigan legislature have passed “Filter First” bills that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign into law this week after allocating funding for the program two years ago. The new laws will require schools and child care facilities to identify water fountains and sinks that are most heavily used, proactively install lead-eliminating filters at those locations, and then conduct tests to ensure the filters are working correctly.

This approach represents a major shift from most existing state laws regarding lead in school drinking water, which can be toxic and cause cancer and developmental challenges in children.

The federal government doesn’t require schools to test for lead, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only requires that public water systems take action to address lead contamination when they find lead levels of 15 parts per billion or more.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that no level of lead in drinking water is safe to consume, particularly for children. And many states have set lower levels of lead at which they require action to remove the chemical element.

The focus on drinking water in schools is part of a larger nationwide effort to replace lead pipes, with help from the federal government. High-profile contamination in places like Flint, Mich., and Jackson, Miss., have drawn national attention to the problem in recent years.

But an aggressive course of action in schools has encountered some resistance. District leaders in states like California and Washington have bristled as states required them to conduct extensive and expensive testing of their water systems.

Cyndi Roper, a senior policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, helped draft the model legislation that Michigan is taking up.

She believes the existing model in many states, which she calls “test and chase,” should be abandoned. It doesn’t precisely target the most used taps, it wastes time and energy on little-used water outlets, and there’s little assurance that schools remove lead from the water after they discover it.

“If you look at places and test for lead, you’re going to find lead at a high percentage of locations,” Roper said.

For instance, a statewide lead-testing mandate in New York found 82 percent of school buildings had one or more taps with lead levels above 15 parts per billion; 56 percent of schools had at least 5 percent of their water taps test above 15 parts per billion for lead; and 2 percent of school buildings had elevated lead levels in more than half the tested taps.

Alternatively, sometimes tests fail to detect lead that actually is present. “You might have a false sense of security,” Roper said.

Why advocates believe ‘filter first’ is cheaper and more effective

Some school buildings have as many as 450 water outlets, said Andrew Whelton, an expert on drinking water safety and a professor of civil, environmental, and ecological engineering at Purdue University.

“It is unreasonable to assume that every fixture that a child goes to should have drinkable water,” Whelton said.

Instead of spending weeks or months on hundreds of tests that deliver expected results, schools in Michigan will now map their school buildings to highlight the water outlets students and staff most often use.

Whelton believes schools should prioritize water fountains in classroom spaces that serve young children, frequently used school hallways, and in places where students congregate after school.

“What we found in many schools is that the big Gatorade bottles are being filled up in showers. Sometimes these had very high levels of lead,” Whelton said. “We need to not only think about the youngest, most susceptible children, but also all the other children developing into adults.”

See Also

Drinking fountains are marked "Do Not Drink Until Further Notice" at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Mich. on May 4, 2016.
Drinking fountains are marked "Do Not Drink Until Further Notice" at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Mich. on May 4, 2016.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

After schools pinpoint sites most in need of filtration, they will be required to install filters on those outlets and test them afterward to make sure the filters are working. It turns the traditional testing model on its head by requiring action to remove lead from water first, then testing to confirm the fix has worked.

Each filtration unit costs roughly $2,700 plus another $150 to replace the filter three times a year, plus $77 to sample from the improved water stations twice a year.

That means schools statewide would pay $54 million to install and monitor one filter for every 100 students, according to the NRDC’s cost analysis. Detroit’s school system has already installed more than 800 filtered water stations with help from $3 million in community and private donors.

By contrast, according to the NRDC, testing all the taps in Michigan schools, and replacing an estimated 40 percent of them with fixtures that don’t contain lead, would cost $80 million.

The new Michigan law includes $50 million in funding for schools to complete this work, installing filters by the end of the 2025-26 school year. “Filter first” advocates are also helping the state identify opportunities for bulk purchasing of filtration systems, to further bring down the cost for districts, Roper said.

Other states could follow Michigan’s example

The new strategy for tackling lead in schools won’t be free of challenges.

Once that $50 million dries up, schools will need more funds to ensure they keep up with required testing. Over 10 years, the NRDC estimates the cost of maintaining filtration systems to be $166 million.

Roper anticipates Michigan will need to set up a robust monitoring system to handle cases that arise when filters don’t work as intended or need to be replaced or re-installed. Training school administrators and facilities managers on how often filters should be replaced will also be a high priority, she said.

So, too, will be convincing other states that “filter first” is the way to go. Kansas lawmakers heard testimony from Roper and others earlier this year about the filter-first strategy. Delaware’s secretary of education, Mark Holodick, has said schools should adopt the approach and reported in February that some districts in his state have already begun.

But policymakers in many other states haven’t caught up to the emerging consensus around “filter first,” Whelton said.

Michigan was one of 27 states that earned an F grade this past February from the Environment America Research & Policy Center for the effectiveness of its policies around lead in school drinking water. The District of Columbia earned a B-plus, and New Hampshire and New Jersey scored B-minuses. No states earned an A or A-minus.

The group’s report also included a revised score for Michigan if it were to implement the filter-first strategy, which had just been proposed. The policy would raise the state’s grade to an A.

“It will be a lot cheaper than trying to root out and replumb in thousands of schools across the state, which can take decades and millions and millions of dollars,” Whelton said. “It may be that we haven’t seen much movement in other states because the other states are not necessarily aware of what Michigan is doing.”

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