Flint, MI— For the first time in four years, Flint Community Schools’ students can drink clean, safe water directly from the fountain.
Since 2018, the district has been having water delivered for students to drink.
Recent tests show the district’s lead levels average between three parts per billion (ppb) and 219 parts per billion, depending on the school. The highest single reading was Scott Elementary School, with one test showing lead levels of 620 ppb, according to district documents obtained by Flint Beat. While there is no “safe” amount of lead, The Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended actionable level is 15 ppb. After filtration, lead and other bacteria are non-detectable.
But now, ultraviolet water filtration systems have been installed, tested, and are ready for use, officials say.
“I am very excited,” Superintendent Kevelin Jones said. “It was about four years ago where we were talking about this, and this was in the early stages. … To see that it came into fruition and our scholars can now drink water out of those hydration stations is a win for us,” Jones said.
The project has been in the making since 2018 when tech billionaire Elon Musk donated $480,000 for water filtration stations in the wake of the Flint Water Crisis.
The state-of-the-art systems remove lead, bacteria, and other metals that release into the water as it moves through the buildings’ plumbing. In total, 130 stations were installed between the district’s 11 schools and the administration building.
Field testing began in August 2021 by Arch Environmental Group in partnership with researchers at Kettering University, who have been spearheading the project.
Researchers took three samples at each water site: one as the water entered the school building, one as the water entered the fountain, and one as the water exited the fountain. Lead levels were recorded before and after the filtration process to determine if the systems were effective.
In all but one school, average lead levels before filtration exceeded 10 ppb. Accelerated Learning Academy, formerly Scott School, had the highest average at 219 ppb, followed by Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary at 46 ppb.
After filtration, there were no detectable amounts of lead or other harmful bacteria at all sites.
Jones said he’s confident the water is safe to drink.
“The water that comes into the school still has bacteria but once it hits the hydration station and goes through the filtering process, what comes out on the other side is pure water,” Jones said. “After the test was ran and after we met several times, yes, I do feel comfortable…. I am confident that the team has done what was necessary to ensure safety.”
The systems are not installed at water sources like bathroom faucets or sinks. Jones said while it’s safe for students to wash their hands, they cannot drink the water.
“Signs will be going up to let them know not to drink out of the restroom. Signs will be going up not. Signs will be going up to let them know not to drink out of the kitchen. Everything must be filtered appropriately in order for them to drink it. They can wash their hands. They can do the basics of going to the restroom. But they’re not supposed to drink that water.
But community activist and longtime water warrior Arthur Woodson said he’s not confident that signs will prevent children from drinking the water.
“How many kids have you seen go in the bathroom and cup their hands and drink out of the faucet? So, why not fix it so that we will know for sure that they’re not drinking it?” Woodson said.
Director for Operations at Flint Schools Peter Medor said all systems would be flushed, which will reduce the amount of lead and bacteria in non-filtered water. He added that even with flushing, unfiltered water is not recommended.
“We’re trying to educate everybody as much as we can. There’s really no way of stopping anybody from drinking water out of somebody’s sink or faucet,” Medor said.
Flint Schools have been virtual since the start of the new year after a spike in COVID cases. Before students’ return on Feb. 7, the district will flush all sinks, water stations, and other waterspouts.
“We have a formula for how long we have to flush each building based on the volume of water in the water main coming into the building…. For example, Flint Southwestern has a six-inch main coming in the building, which is pretty large. And we are going to flush that for at least an hour,” Medor said.
Jones said water sampling and testing will be ongoing, at least three times every six months. Results will be posted to the district’s website for parents, students, and community members to see.
The district will also flush all water systems during breaks, like Christmas or after the summer break, Medor said.
How do the filters work?
Laura Sullivan, a mechanical engineering professor at Kettering and co-principal investigator on the project, has tested the filters in a lab setting. She’s also been working on a volunteer basis to perfect the systems.
Sullivan said the stations 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.
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 the taste, like chlorine. It then goes through an “ultrafilter,” which removes most bacteria. Finally, an ultraviolet light kills off any remaining bacteria or viruses.
Water technology like this simply doesn’t exist elsewhere, Jones said.
“This is one of a kind. This is the start of something that could really support schools moving forward,” Jones said.
What took so long?
The water stations were installed during the 2019-2020 school year, but Kettering researchers determined a reconfiguration was needed, which halted progress.
Sullivan said during initial testing, the filters had inconsistent results and were uncertified, meaning they did not meet National Sanitation Foundation standards for removing contaminants. Around that time, the pandemic hit.
Unable to contact the manufacturer, Sullivan began looking for an alternative. She found one made by a company called 3M. The new filter performed both carbon block filtering and membrane filtering.
Sullivan and her team started the new units in Jan. 2021, which involved adding known amounts of bacteria and metals to water, sending it through the filters, and measuring the bacteria and lead levels afterward. Testing moved from the lab to the schools in Aug. 2021.
Sullivan said that the filters would need to be replaced at least once every school year. Though the quality of filtration will never be affected, water flow may significantly slow down, she said.
The district plans to replace the filters every six months, Jones said.
Flint Schools’ will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Feb. 8 at Southwestern High School starting at 10 a.m. Sullivan, district officials, and representatives from Arch Environmental will be onsite to answer any questions.
Alternative sources of water, like bottles and Absopure jugs, will be available to students, Jones said.
“We’re still going to do that for at least the rest of the school year to ensure that our scholars have a choice right now. There may be some anxiety. So, we still want to make sure that we’re taking care of those scholars as well. Families may not trust it right out of the gate. So, we’re still going to have water bottles coming into the district,” Jones said.
The fountains will “go live” on Jan. 9, with the bubblers shut off so students cannot put their mouths up to the spout. This is to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Jones said.