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Lead contamination prompts water testing at Okemos Public Schools

A water filtered station at Okemos Public School district
Okemos Public Schools
A water filtered station at Okemos Public School district

Okemos Public Schools is one of the first school districts in the state to follow guidelines set up by Michigan’s “Filter First” legislation after the district identified several school locations where drinking water was contaminated with lead.

As of the district's most recent series of testing mid-March, 11 classrooms tested above the district's lead limit of 5 parts per billion (pbb). The highest level at 219 pbb was found in a classroom at Bennett Woods Elementary.

Kinawa 5-6 School, Okemos High School and Chippewa Middle School also had sites where lead was above the district's action level, including in bathroom sinks, classrooms, locker rooms, science labs and a band room.

Most schools in Okemos detected lead in water in at least one site during the recent series of testing. No lead was found in water fountains and bottle filling stations.

School officials began the testing initiative after the district received complaints from teachers about discolored water at Okemos Public Montessori at Central last October.

“We tested that discolored water and another a number of other faucets to start and we got some we actually had some lead hits come back,” said Okemos Public Schools Superintendent John Hood.

During the first test, results showed lead in the water in both of the classrooms tested at the Montessori school close to state and federal standards. Michigan’s action level for lead is 15 pbb while the Food and Drug Administration’s standard for lead in bottled water is 5 ppb.

Prompted by the initial results at the four tested locations at Okemos’ Montessori school, the district expanded its efforts to include water supplies that had not yet been tested and discovered how widespread the problem really was.

“That's scary for parents and for our staff and for our community,” Hood added. “And honestly, for me as superintendent, I don't want that. But the good news is we are being proactive.”

The initial testing of the water at Okemos Public Montessori took place around the same time Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the "Filter First" bill package. The law requires schools and childcare centers to ensure their water is free from lead, to install filters for drinking water and to conduct regular sampling of their supplies.

While the law doesn’t go into effect until 2025, Hood says Okemos Public Schools is already making progress.

“Having tested all our buildings proactively, we know where the hotspots are, and are addressing those two years before we're required to do so,” said Hood.

Okemos Public School District has begun working with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to execute a plan aimed at remedying the lead contamination issue across all of its buildings’ water systems.

“We’re looking at things like flushing plans for flushing water in the pipes so it's not sitting stagnant. Cleaning and replacing aerators, making sure that all the water stations have filtered water, replacing old faucets that may not be lead free and adding additional drinking fountains,” Hood said.

As part of their drinking water management plan, the district created a website that shows test results and implementation plans. So far, the district has spent around $60,000 to test the water in all of the buildings and they are hoping to apply for grants from the state to implement their plans.

“We are not going to let funding or grants get in the way of what’s doing right for kids in terms of clean drinking water,” Hood added.

The "Filter First" law will allow schools and childcare centers to access a onetime grant to implement a drinking water management plan and to install lead reducing filters. The law will require schools to test filtered water every year and childcare centers every two years.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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