Lead Discovered In Water Supply At Ingham County School Building

Michigan health, environmental departments among agencies providing assistance.

This is a photo of a school water fountain.

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The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), are working with the Ingham County Health Department (ICHD) after lead was found in the drinking water at a building in Okemos Public Schools.

Water testing at Okemos Public Schools Central Montessori building, located at 4406 Okemos Road in Meridian Township, discovered lead levels of 5 parts per billion (ppb) in one location and another of 9 ppb in another.

While Michigan’s action level for lead is 15 ppb, MDHHS says that no level of lead is considered safe for drinking water. Exposure to lead can cause brain and kidney damage, behavioral problems and even death, among a litany of other health problems.

According to a Nov. 30 communication from Okemos Superintendent John Hood, the discovery of the lead came about following recently passed legislation designed to protect Michigan children from lead contaminated-water.

“The Okemos Public Schools remain dedicated to the health and safety of our community, as well as clear and transparent communication,” he said. “In that spirit, we are writing to update our community regarding recent water testing at OPM (Okemos Public Montessori) and district plans to implement Michigan’s Clean Water Drinking Act, known as the ‘Filter First Legislation,’ ahead of the state’s 2025-26 deadline.”

The legislation is a bipartisan package of bills signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in October requiring Michigan schools and childcare centers to install filtered-faucets, develop a drinking water management plan and conduct routine sampling and testing to ensure children have access to safe drinking water.

Hood said the testing was ordered after discolored water was observed in classrooms at Central Montessori.

“As a result of that testing we discovered one sample, not related to the original concern, which required action due to lead levels above the 5 parts per-billion-level,” said Hood. “Additional testing of more than a dozen areas revealed two other faucets with lead measurements above the 5 ppb. (All hallway drinking fountains tested undetectable.) The district is following all actions recommended by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and our testing company, Environmental Resources Group (ERG).”

Among those recommendations were to clean all of the faucet aerators, flush the system, shut off the problem fixtures, post “not for drinking” signs at the problem fixtures and continue to provide bottled water throughout the building.

EGLE Strategic Communications Advisor Scott Dean confirmed for the Michigan Advance that all of the building’s hallway filtered fountains/bottle filling stations have been “non-detect for lead,” and that the “detections have been limited to a few classroom faucets that have been taken out of service.” Dean also said the district had an alternative water supply already in place at the school.

Victoria Coykendall, health communications specialist with the Ingham County Health Department, told the Advance that the department also provided recommendations including that students and staff “could receive a lead test,” and that parents with questions about their child’s health should contact their primary care provider.

“ICHD also shared information about its lead testing program and other ways to receive a lead test,” said Coykendall. “This may change based on emerging information. We continue to provide guidance and take action to protect the health and safety of these students and staff.”

Meanwhile, MDHHS Public Information Officer Lynn Sutfin told the Advance that the state health department, along with EGLE, are working in conjunction with the Ingham County Health Department to address the issue.

“MDHHS has recommended health education information to be shared with families as well as offered to assist with blood lead level testing if needed,” said Sutfin. “EGLE has been reaching out to the school and their municipal water provider (ELMWSA) and providing technical guidance around flushing and sampling the drinking water at the school.”

A request for comment to Superintendent Hood on those recommendations and whether they were being carried out in full has, so far, not been returned.

Concerns about lead in drinking water have taken on greater scrutiny in the aftermath of the water crisis in Flint, which began in 2014 when state-appointed emergency managers tried to save money by switching the city’s water supply to the Flint River without implementing anti-corrosion treatments. The old pipes then leached lead into the city’s drinking water, with some homes eventually testing at well over 1,000 ppb, causing widespread health issues, including elevated lead levels in the blood of children.

While the situation in Okemos isn’t at all at that level of seriousness, because children are involved, the concern is much more amplified. The MDHHS says that children exposed to lead may have lower IQ scores, decreased academic achievement, increased problems with behavior and attention related disorders as well as decreases in hearing and kidney function. Those potential problems become more likely with increased exposure, with a blood test seen as the most reliable method to determine the extent of that exposure.

That was one of the motivations behind bipartisan legislation also signed in October by Whitmer that guaranteed the screening of minors for lead poisoning in Michigan. The legislation requires all children be tested for lead poisoning between 12 and 24 months of age, while also allowing for parents to opt out if they choose to do so.

In addition to Flint, Benton Harbor also suffered from extensive lead poisoning, while other Michigan communities have faced high rates as well, including Hamtramck and Grand Rapids. In 2021, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that Michigan ranked the third highest in the nation for children with elevated levels of lead in their blood.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lead exposure is especially dangerous for children under age 6 because their bodies are rapidly developing.

As for what caused the lead contamination in Okemos, it is believed that recent construction in the building, formally known as the Okemos Public Montessori at Central, resulted in lead solder that was used to join the copper pipes to be released into the water supply. The building is the oldest in the district, having opened in 1923.

[Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that students and staff at Okemos Public Montessori at Central  “should receive a lead test.” However, Victoria Coykendall, health communications specialist with the Ingham County Health Department, says she misspoke and that the recommendation was that students and staff “could receive a lead test.”]

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

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