Before Flint, Lead-Contaminated Water Plagued Schools Across U.S. Schools all over the country, not just Michigan, have struggled to eliminate lead from water fountains and cafeterias — some for more than a decade.
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Before Flint, Lead-Contaminated Water Plagued Schools Across U.S.

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Before Flint, Lead-Contaminated Water Plagued Schools Across U.S.

Before Flint, Lead-Contaminated Water Plagued Schools Across U.S.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The lead crisis in Flint, Mich., has focused attention on testing water, something we tend to assume is safe. In fact, many places have long struggled with elevated lead levels. Among them, the nation's aging public schools, where the issue is old pipes and faucets. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: It's lunchtime at Southwest Baltimore Charter School. In the kitchen, that means a few extra steps.

LASHAWN THOMPSON: We don't use the water from the building for cooking - not at all.

LUDDEN: Cafeteria workers Christine Fraction and LaShawn Thompson point to a large water bottle next to a stainless-steel sink.

THOMPSON: We having greens or something like that, we're having vegetables, we'll just turn it over into the pan and then put it on the stove.

LUDDEN: Throughout the school, water fountains are turned off. Custodian Cheryl Norris (ph) shows me the store room.

CHERYL NORRIS: This is our water supply.

LUDDEN: Wow, it's a lot of bottles.

NORRIS: It is. We get approximately 80 bottles every two weeks.

ERIKA BROCKMAN: It's safety first.

LUDDEN: Erika Brockman is executive director of Southwest Baltimore Charter School.

BROCKMAN: It's not the best solution. But in the short term, I completely understand why the district is approaching the problem this way.

LUDDEN: Bottled water's actually become a long-term solution here. Baltimore first found elevated lead levels in scores of schools back in 1992. It ordered contaminated fountains turned off. But a decade later, many were back in service. Confronted by a crusading father, the city again vowed change. Researcher and activist Yanna Lambrinidou of Virginia Tech says Baltimore gets credit for finally taking the problem seriously.

YANNA LAMBRINIDOU: They decided that protecting children from lead and drinking water was such a gargantuan task and almost impossible unless they had the ability to replace every single lead-bearing plumbing.

LUDDEN: Which they did not - too expensive. So in 2007, the entire school district switched to bottled water. Baltimore City Public Schools declined to talk about the decision. But at the time, they said spending $675,000 a year on bottled water was the most cost-effective solution. With no testing since then, charter school director Erika Brockman doesn't actually know whether her school's water is unsafe. She's thought about trying it.

BROCKMAN: But it's really scary to do that given everything that's going on. And I don't want my students to be the guinea pigs for this.

LUDDEN: In fact, across the country it's hard to know lead levels. Researcher Lambrinidou says for most schools, there is no requirement to test for lead and if they find it no mandate to fix it or tell parents.

LAMBRINIDOU: What we see again and again is that the people who first discovered the contamination were parents whose children were diagnosed with elevated blood-lead levels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thousands of children could be drinking water with an unsafe amount of lead.

LUDDEN: Back in 2008, tipped off by a parent, NBC4 Los Angeles found local schools with lead levels hundreds of times above what the federal government deemed safe. The district promised to beef up daily flushing of fountains to wash out the lead. But when NBC4 followed up last year...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Our cameras saw employees walking right past fountains early in the morning without ever flushing them.

MARK HOVATTER: It was a very idealistic complicated process that we had, and sometimes it's hard to live up to those idealistic standards.

LUDDEN: Mark Hovatter is chief facilities executive with Los Angeles Unified School District. He says getting rid of lead is incredibly complicated. LA Unified doesn't even have lead pipes.

HOVATTER: Our greatest percentage of fountains that do have higher concentrations than we would like come from our brand-new schools.

LUDDEN: The problem? New brass fittings that leach lead and fountains on the far side of playgrounds. They're used less, he says, so the water sits and lead builds up. The school board recently allocated $20 million to fix both issues.

Back at Southwest Baltimore's school, two third-grade boys unload an empty water bottle and heave a full one onto a cart. It's a routine others may adopt. In recent weeks, elevated lead levels have been found at schools in Washington state, Ohio, upstate New York and New Jersey. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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