Flint, MI— As some kids prepare to return to classrooms on Feb. 22, the water at Flint Schools is still unsafe to drink in the wake of the Flint Water Crisis

But district officials say they hope to complete testing on 81 ultraviolet water filtration stations donated by tech billionaire Elon Musk within the next two weeks—a process that has been two years in the making. 

Musk donated $480,000 for the fountians in Oct. 2018 and they have since undergone a series of testing in partnership with researchers at Kettering University. Flint Schools’ former superintendent Derrick Lopez originally coordinated the effort.  

Laura Sullivan, mechanical engineering professor at Kettering and co-principal investigator on the project, said the filtration systems are necessary so students don’t consume residual lead or other bacteria.  

“There is lead in some of the plumbing within the schools, as well as galvanized iron (which adsorbed lead from the water). In addition, in some buildings the chlorine level isn’t always sufficient to completely disinfect the water,” Sullivan said. 

Prior to the pandemic, students drank water from Absopure water jugs. 

“Scholars would either use the cups they were given, they were cups that you can throw away after you drink them, or they brought their own water bottles and refilled it,” Assistant Superintendent Kevelin Jones said. 

Though the water filtration systems were installed during the 2019-2020 school year, Kettering researchers determined a reconfiguration was needed, which halted progress, Superintendent Anita Steward said. 

The problem was several bad, uncertified filters, Sullivan said. 

The systems are essentially water fountains connected to a series of complex filters. Three filtration methods remove potential contaminants from water by targeting particles of varied sizes and shapes, Sullivan said. 

“We generally talk about this in terms of microns, or micrometers. So, we’re talking about removing very small objects which you couldn’t see without a microscope… If you’re more comfortable thinking in terms of inches, an inch is 25,000 micrometers long.” 

Water that flows into the drinking fountain first passes through an activated carbon filter, which removes metals such as lead and copper and other particles that could affect taste, like chlorine. It then goes through an “ultrafilter,” which removes most bacteria. Finally, an ultraviolet light kills off any remaining bacteria or viruses. 

Testing involved adding known amounts of bacteria to water and known amounts of lead to water to create “worst-case” scenarios, Sullivan said. 

“We would introduce each water solution to the drinking fountain separately, and measure the bacteria count or the lead level in the water that would come through the faucet,” she said. 

The ultrafilters had inconsistent results and were also “unmarked,” or un-certified, so Sullivan couldn’t call the manufacturer to troubleshoot. 

“Filters can be certified by the National Sanitation Foundation, whereby they are proven to meet standards for removing contaminants. The NSF logo on a filter is sort of a ‘stamp of approval’… If any one filter in a system isn’t certified, then there is a question about the quality of the water it produces, no matter what other filters are present,” she said. 

Kettering researchers and Lopez agreed that all units would have to function constantly, and all components would need certification by NSF before they were safe for students. 

“It was at about this time that COVID-19 hit and our access to the building and lab was limited,” Sullivan said. 

It took a year to find a replacement ultrafilter that fit properly in the fountain, but one was procured at the end of 2020, she said. 

Kettering is now ready to perform “worst-case scenario” testing for the second time. Once that phase is finished, field testing by an environmental testing lab will begin.  This involves testing the fountains after they’ve been hooked up to the schools’ water lines.  

“For this test, water would be sampled as it entered the school building, as it entered the drinking fountain, and as it came out of the faucet,” Sullivan said. 

If both phases go well, the fountains will be ready for use. Whether testing will conclude before students return to school still is unclear. 

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...

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