Teacher Cedric Cook pushes cases of water into Noble School in Detroit on Sept. 4. Some 50,000 Detroit public school students started the school year Tuesday by drinking water from coolers, not fountains, after the discovery of elevated levels of lead or copper — the latest setback in a state already dealing with the consequences of contaminated tap water in Flint and other communities. (Paul Sancya/AP)

It's still a problem, and it's still outrageous: Potentially millions of students should not drink the water from faucets and fountains at their schools because it could be unsafe.

In Detroit, for example, some 50,000 children in the city's public schools started the school year this week having to drink from bottled water after high levels of lead or copper were found in a number of schools. The fountains were turned off in all of them out of what officials called an “abundance of caution."

The residents of Flint have famously been dealing with unsafe water for years, and this year, once again, public school students will drink from water jugs — not drinking fountains because the problem has yet to be solved.

And it's not just in Michigan: A new U.S. government report says millions of children were potentially exposed to unsafe drinking water at their schools, but nobody really knows how many. Why? Because many states don't bother running the tests.

A July 2018 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which surveyed school districts across the country on testing for lead in drinking water in 2017, found:

● 41 percent of districts, serving 12 million students, had not tested for lead in the 12 months before completing the survey.

● 43 percent of districts, serving 35 million students, tested for lead. Of those, 37 percent found elevated levels and reduced or eliminated exposure.

And then there was this: 16 percent of the districts replied to the nationally representative survey by saying that they did not know whether they had tested. (Couldn't the people answering the GAO survey have found out?)

The report says that at least eight states require schools to test for lead, and many others assist with voluntary testing. But the government does not require public schools that get federal funds to test the water students drink for lead, the most common pollutant.


It was the discovery of toxic levels of lead in drinking water in Flint in 2015 that renewed awareness about the risks that lead poses to public health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, elevated blood lead levels have been linked to brain and kidney damage, anemia and learning disabilities. Children are particularly at risk because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults.

Lead can be found in paint and soil, but also in drinking water from faucets and fountains connected to lead-containing pipes. The GAO report says:

Lead in school drinking water is a concern because it is a daily source of water for over 50 million children enrolled in public schools. The pattern of school schedules—including time off over weekends, holidays, and extended breaks—can contribute to standing water in the school’s plumbing system. If there is lead in the plumbing system, the potential for it to leach into water can increase the longer the water remains in contact with the plumbing. Other factors also influence the extent to which lead enters the water, such as the chemistry of the water, the amount of lead that comes into contact with the water, and the presence of protective scales or coatings inside plumbing materials.

Yes, in the United States, adults can't seem to find a way to clean up something as basic as water for children to drink in their schools.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on standardized tests that critics say are worse than useless. Just saying.