This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
School District officials said Monday that they are launching a $1 million initiative to equip every school in the city with three hydration stations — modern water fountains at which students can fill their bottles or cups.
The District announced last week that it is also conducting an audit of the drinking water in existing fountains at 40 schools scattered across all nine of its Neighborhood Networks. The last time the District conducted water quality testing was in 2010.
“Safe, accessible, and appealing drinking water for all of our students is part of our Green Future sustainability plan,” said Superintendent William Hite, “and hydration stations in all of our schools is part of that plan.”
The actions come after City Council hearings and concerns about whether drinking water in schools is safe. The questions were raised after revelations that residents in Flint, Michigan, were being poisoned by high lead levels in drinking water after officials there changed the water supply to save money.
Students in Philadelphia complained that they avoided drinking water in schools due to cosmetic or real problems with older water fountains in many buildings. Council introduced a bill in May requiring school drinking fountains to meet city plumbing codes.
Hydration stations are attached to the wall, and students hold bottles or cups underneath the faucet, which is triggered by a motion sensor.
Fran Burns, the District’s chief operating officer, said at a press conference at H.A. Brown Elementary School in North Philadelphia that some principals are planning to provide students with cups or bottles, but that working out the logistics will be up to individual schools.
So far the District has installed 30 hydration stations in 10 schools.
Burns said that every school in the city would have three of these stations by the end of the 2016-17 school year – a total of 654 hydration stations.
By the start of this school year, the District expects to have stations in 43 schools. The District says it spent about $750,000 on the hydration stations (including spares for replacements, some extras for larger schools and a full inventory of replacement filters). The labor to install the stations is estimated at $250,000, according to the District.
Burns said that the water in schools is safe, but that these measures are being taken to reassure parents and make sure every student has access to clean cold water throughout the day.
The full results of the “voluntary retesting program” will not be available until October, but Burns said the District is “going to be providing results as we go along.”
As of Aug. 12, Burns said, the District had tested every water fountain in 14 schools and found that water from four drinking fountains did not pass the test. Those four fountains have since been removed for maintenance and replaced.
Burns said that this testing is necessary because “some of our water fountains are newer than others.”
Parents have plenty of reasons to want reassurance.
City Council held hearings in March on tap water lead levels after the disaster in Flint.
In June, an investigative report from the Guardian newspaper found Philadelphia to be among 33 cities across the country that use water testing “cheats” when monitoring lead levels in the city’s tap water. These were the same testing methods that led to criminal charges against three public employees in Flint.
That same month, Hagens Berman law firm filed a class action lawsuit against the city, alleging that it knowingly authorized construction projects that increased the risk of toxic levels of lead in the tap water without notifying residents.
As the Guardian reported, even small levels of lead can impair children’s neurological development. As lead accumulates in the body, it is stored in the bones and can stay there for years, “releasing during times of stress and during pregnancy.”
A 1985 study estimated that up to 5,000 Americans died each year from lead-related heart disease. But Philadelphia’s children have experienced a significant decline in lead levels since the 1980s, corresponding with the national decline after lead paint was banned in the late ’70s, and lead gasoline in the mid-’80s. From 1997 to 2011, the portion of children in the United States suffering from unsafe lead levels decreased from 7.6 percent to 0.6 percent.
In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut in half the minimum amount of lead in a child’s bloodstream to qualify as suffering from lead exposure, which is also the level that requires doctors to inform parents.
But despite the overall decline in lead levels, as of 2014, more than 10 percent of children in Philadelphia qualified as having lead exposure, according to the Guardian.