This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In early 2016, the School District met with students, community advocates, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to discuss how to improve students’ access to safe water. Members of the advocacy organization Youth United for Change and the Food Trust, another nonprofit, were pushing the District to spend some of its reserves to install new hydration stations.
The District, however, seemed reluctant, according to the advocates.
Then the Flint, Michigan, water crisis came to light, and access to safe drinking water was catapulted to center stage in the nation’s public health discussions. A few months later, a report found that Philadelphia’s methods of testing for lead in drinking water were less accurate than those used in Flint.
The District agreed to install three new water fountains, called hydration stations, in every school after City Council held hearings about water access during the spring. City Council then passed an ordinance mandating that schools must have at least one working water outlet for every 100 students.
“The hydration stations were a big victory,” said Rapheal Randall, executive director of Youth United for Change.
But the youth organization and the Food Trust didn’t stop there. They pressed the District to retest the water of every outlet in each school for lead and to make the results available to the public, unlike the last round of testing. They also insisted that the District adopt the new 15 parts per billion safe lead threshold, 25 percent lower than the old threshold.
The District compromised by agreeing to retest every outlet at 40 schools spread around the city using the new threshold. Advocates who were present at the meeting said the District appeared confident that the water would pass the safety test.
The initial round of tests, however, found that nearly 15 percent of water outlets tested in the first 22 schools had lead levels above the District’s new threshold (see chart below). That testing covered 361 fountains and found 49 with lead levels above 15 parts per billion. Each fountain that was over the safety limit was shut off immediately.
The initial results were alarming, so the District agreed to test every outlet at each school over the next 18 months and to do another round of routine testing every four years to ensure that drinking outlets don’t exceed the safe limit.
Six fountains across four schools had lead levels over 100 parts per billion.
A fountain in Benjamin Franklin High School’s kitchen tested at 276 parts per billion. Another, in the hallway at Gompers Elementary, was at 151, and Cramp Elementary had three fountains ranging from 119 to 189 parts per billion.
The sixth fountain with a high lead level was located in a Head Start classroom in Holme Elementary and tested at 114 parts per billion. That fountain and three more out of eight Head Start classrooms at Holme were shut off; those three had lead levels much lower, closer to the 15 parts per billion threshold.
Campaigning for safe water
Youth United for Change and the Food Trust initially began collaborating with the District as part of the Green Future Healthy Schools committee. Convened by the District, the committee was responsible for drafting an action plan to improve “nutrition, fitness, indoor environmental quality and overall student well-being,” said District spokesman Kevin Geary.
The youth organization and the Food Trust first brought up water access and safety in a February 2016 meeting with the District.
“One of the important areas that the District’s Green Futures committee wanted to focus on was healthy hydration,” Geary said.
Dwayne Wharton, director of external affairs at the Food Trust, said that they got the idea from students. The Food Trust holds a summit for Philadelphia students every fall, and last fall, the most common issue raised was access to water. Many students complained about only having access to appealing drinking water at lunch.
“When you look at the several-decades-old porcelain fountains with stains that have been used as trash receptacles, we know that kids aren’t going to use that,” Wharton said. “This is an equity issue.”
Student involvement got Youth United for Change on the case, too. The organization’s mission is to organize students to advocate for issues that they identify in their communities. Students in the organization’s chapter at ASPIRA Olney Charter High School complained that they were not permitted to bring their own water bottles into the school building and that there was a lack of working water fountains.
“They told us they would have to buy bottled water after gym class,” Randall said. “As we were digging deeper, we started to find out that there were other students around the city grappling with issues of water access.” The problem isn’t unique to charter schools, he said.
“Because students have a better lay of the land internally in their schools, we wanted to make sure they were involved in selecting the placement of stations,” Randall said. “Too often, I think, advocacy groups place working-class folks in the position of consumers and not as folks that can offer insights.”
After the District agreed to test all schools, Youth United for Change and the Food Trust had new concerns about the hydration stations: They get water through schools’ existing plumbing, presumably the source of elevated lead levels.
Jerry Roseman, an environmental scientist who consults with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, was present at the February meeting. He said the District agreed to install water filters in every hydration station.
But Roseman still worried that the filters would need to be changed regularly in order to be effective.
“Do we have the staff to do that? Do we have the time and money?” Roseman asked. “You need to build in those costs.”
Wharton had similar concerns, so he called the distributor of the hydration stations. “They purchased enough (filters) for seven years of use,” said Wharton, adding that they are easy to clean with soap and water. “And the filters are a quick swap out. I believe the facilities staff are responsible” to change the filter once a red light starts flashing.
Although most of their concerns have been addressed by the District, advocates say they still have some questions about water access.
Randall says there’s no guarantee that students will be allowed to bring water bottles to fill at the new stations.
“[The District] leaves that up to the principals, which leads to separate but unequal conditions in neighborhood schools perceived as violent,” Randall said. “Schools like Central and Masterman get more leeway.”
Spokesman Geary confirmed that the District’s policy is that “principals are directly responsible for their individual school’s operations,” including water bottles.
Testing timelines, methods vary
Roseman, Wharton, and Randall expressed concern that the 18-month timeline the District has set for testing is far too long.
Washington, D.C., meanwhile, tests all of its schools annually. In the spring of 2016, after facing public criticism for failing to properly publicize past results, the D.C. public school system conducted a second round of “blitz” tests at all of its schools. Those tests took less than two months.
The New York City Department of Education tested all of its occupied public school buildings between March and June 2016. Los Angeles, which last tested all of its schools in 2009, needed only six months to complete the project.
There is no clear consensus among major urban school districts when it comes to the recommended frequency of testing, type of testing, or the standard to which schools should be held.
Seattle started a water-testing program in 2004, but individual buildings are only tested every three years. Seattle does, however, rank among the most vigilant districts when it comes to setting a maximum lead threshold. The district considers outlets with more than 10 parts per billion of lead to be unsafe.
Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia all set the allowable lead level at 15.
Then there’s the question of how school districts should test for lead.
Philadelphia collects a 250-milliliter “first draw” sample, which means the water in the tap has been stagnant for at least eight hours and isn’t flushed before testing. Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor whose work helped expose the lead crisis in Flint, called Philadelphia’s testing method “good” in an email exchange and said it was consistent with EPA recommendations. The EPA suggests follow-up flush samples for outlets where the lead level exceeds 20 parts per billion. Such tests help determine the source of lead contamination.
By contrast, Chicago draws five sequential 250-milliliter samples for each of its water outlets. Los Angeles also does multiple tests per water source.
New York City landed in trouble recently when a New York Times investigation found that the school system there used a method called “pre-stagnation” flushing, which involved running tested outlets for two hours the night before they were to be tested. New York has since changed its testing protocol.
It’s difficult to gauge the relative seriousness of Philadelphia’s lead problem because the District hasn’t tested all outlets yet. But if the current rate of failure persists, Philadelphia would be significantly worse off than the aforementioned cities.
In Chicago, just 3 percent of outlets failed in the first round of testing this year. In New York, less than 1 percent had more than the actionable level of lead. Washington, D.C., found that less than 4 percent of its outlets had dangerous concentrations of lead. Los Angeles discovered high lead levels in 9 percent of outlets upon first draw, but was able to remediate most of those outlets through flushing. The Los Angeles school district ended up taking 2 percent of its drinking outlets offline.
Philadelphia discovered unacceptably high lead levels in nearly 15 percent of tested water outlets. So far, however, the District has only tested older schools that it suspected might be at higher risk for elevated lead levels. Until all schools are tested systemwide, it’s difficult to make direct comparisons.
For its part, the District maintains that it is testing the water as quickly as it can.
“The [District’s] water-testing program is being conducted at a pace within the capacity of the District’s Office of Environmental Management & Services’ staffing resources,” Geary said. “Based upon a comparison of Chicago Public Schools and our district’s size, [Chicago] has three to four times the capacity to implement their water-testing program.”
Roseman said that he was glad that the District made the new test results available on its website, but he also requested that they publish the test results from the last round. Instead, the District uploaded a generic form letter sent home to the parents at each school assuring them that the water tested safe.
The chart below shows the results of lead testing in the first 22 schools.