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Detroit Students Face Heat Wave, Elevated Metals In Drinking Water


In the city of Detroit, public school students are facing a heat wave, and they are finding the water fountains near their classrooms are not working. As Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET reports, Detroit officials shut them off after recent testing discovered elevated levels of lead and copper.

QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: At the Detroit School of Arts, student Dayana Williams is ready to start classwork. She's brought her notebook, her backpack, and she's made a special point to bring her own bottled water. There's a new water cooler with bottled water down the hallway, but Williams says, after hearing reports that lead and copper was found in school bathrooms and water fountains, she's taking no chances.

DAYANA WILLIAMS: I have a history of passing out from dehydration, so I'm still worried about, like, if the water will be turned back on. But at the same time, it's like, I can't do nothing about it. At least they have coolers here for us to drink. So I'm just going to have to deal with it.

KLINEFELTER: Officials say students can wash their hands with water the in school buildings, just not drink it. It's a problem at aging schools across the country. Detroit Public Schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti says higher-than-normal amounts of lead and copper were found in the water at 34 of 50 of its schools, so Vitti ordered all the school buildings tested - more than a hundred of them - then turned off the drinking water while engineers try to figure out if the contamination is coming from old pipes or rusty faucets.

NIKOLAI VITTI: The solution is not a whack-a-mole effect of, well, let's take out that water fountain or that sink. That's not a long-term solution. And in between testing, we can't say, well, unfortunately, students were exposed to higher levels of copper, lead. That's why we discontinued everything because I was seeing concerns in new schools and old schools.


KLINEFELTER: But for some here in Detroit, lead-tainted water raises the specter of the crisis that plagued a city a few miles to the north.

PATRICIA TAYLOR: What is this, another Flint?

KLINEFELTER: Detroiter Patricia Taylor says she has eight grandchildren in the public school system, and she says she's been supplying them all with bottled water for years because she just doesn't trust the pipes in aging Detroit school buildings.

TAYLOR: My grandkids, now, they don't drink it - water at school at all because they feel that there's something wrong with it. Like I said, it was rusted a long time ago. Rust was coming out the water, and I seen it with my own eyes.

KLINEFELTER: Officials say it will take months to pinpoint the cause of the contamination, let alone determine how much it might cost to fix it. With outside temperatures in the 90s and many classrooms without air conditioning, at least there is water for students starting school this week, even if it comes from a bottle or a cooler.

For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEV'S, "NEW LAND DISCOVERY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quinn Klinefelter
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