Ann Arbor Public Schools monitoring high lead levels

Thursday, October 4, 2018 - 12:16pm

Schools in the Ann Arbor Public Schools district have been found to have elevated levels of lead in their drinking water.

Schools in the Ann Arbor Public Schools district have been found to have elevated levels of lead in their drinking water. Buy this photo
Photo Courtesy of Pioneer High School

Schools in the Ann Arbor Public Schools district have been found to have elevated levels of lead in their drinking water.

Multiple schools measured well over 15 ppb, including sites at Angell Elementary School, Clague Middle School, Skyline High School, Forsythe Middle School and Burns Park Elementary School—the last two logging lead levels of 120 and 320 ppb, respectively. According to the Center for Disease Control, lead exposure can negatively impact the nervous system and brain development, especially in young children. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that action be taken when there is more than 15 parts per billion of lead in water. 

Jerome Nriagu, emeritus professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan, said lead exposure can lead to inattention and behavioral issues.

“Especially the neurocognition effects; I think that’s where everyone focuses their attention these days, again, which can lead to all inattention, (trouble in school) and so on,” Nriagu said.

The Detroit Public Schools district announced in August that it was shutting off its water sources because of high lead levels.

AAPS has voluntarily tested its water for lead annually since 2016. According to 2016 and 2017 water amendment reports, all AAPS schools excluding Huron High School had detectable amounts of lead in the water. Thirteen schools had at least one water source test above 15 parts per billion.

Nriagu said the Burns Park lead results are shocking.

“I’m shocked that we can let something like that happen,” Nriagu said. “The exposure in children in schools is such a high level of risk.”

This year’s lead testing began this week.

Christine Stead, president of the AAPS School Board, said buildings had not been in use at the time of testing and that could have contributed to the high lead readings.

“We did the testing when most of our buildings were not in use,” Stead said. “That was a timing issue that was a known issue but unfortunately the water (intelligence) firm that we used could not do it any other time.”

According to Stead, faucets were replaced if a site tested above 15 parts per billion. The district is also adding new water bottle stations that have lead filters. Stead believes this is why Huron High School did not have detectable lead amounts.

“In 2016, we had two sites (at Huron) … one read high, so we replaced that faucet,” Stead said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t do something else in 2018. This is our commitment to monitor this and see how things go.”

“We would love to get to zero parts per billion because no lead in the water is good,” Stead added. “We also know that our city water is at least 3 ppb for lead … Each year we’ve expanded how many faucets or sites where water comes out that we’re testing.”

According to a statement by AAPS Superintendent Jeanice Swift on the district’s website, the district will implement protocol when lead levels in schools exceed 10 parts per billion.

With the overall goal of the program to reduce exposure to lead, in this next round of testing we are also lowering the threshold for when we implement the AAPS protocol for addressing an issue,” the statement reads. “Starting this fall, remediation efforts will be implemented when lead levels are at >10 ppb. Additional attention will be paid to water fixtures that are between 5 and 10 ppb.”

Nriagu said the state of Michigan has changed testing requirements for lead and these are more accurate in determining lead levels in water.

“What they (the state) recommend now is they should collect the first 250 milliliters of water and then the (fifth) liter of water,” Nriagu said. “Whichever one is higher (in lead content) is what they should use to determine what to do next.”

Area residents are also concerned with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, in the Huron River. The river serves as a main water source for the city.

PFAS were first discovered in the Huron River in 2014. The chemicals have been linked to cancer and liver disease. A “Do-not-eat-foam” advisory was released in September because of the toxicity of PFAS.

Stead believes this is a shared issue between AAPS and the city of Ann Arbor because AAPS uses city water.

“All of our schools take our water from the city,” Stead said. “Whatever the city’s issues are a shared issue with us.”

City Councilmember Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, mentioned in last week’s City Council meeting that the city has approved new measures to improve water treatment facilities.

“We just recently voted through $850,000 in improvements to our water treatment facilities,” Grand said. “We take our PFAS levels from well under what is currently recommended to what is acceptable to our community, which is undetectable or close to that. I’m very proud of that decision as a council.”

Leah Graham contributed to this story.