Flint, MI—Testing shows that Flint Community Schools’ lead-filtering hydration stations are functioning well, offering students and staff clean drinking water, officials say. 

Dr. Laura Sullivan, a mechanical engineering professor at Kettering University who led the filter installation project, assured the community that water from the district’s hydration stations is safe to drink during a Flint Community Schools Board of Education meeting on Oct. 12, 2022.

“For the second time in a row, [we] demonstrate that all of the hydration stations are removing all lead no matter how frequently they’re used, no matter where in the building they are located,” Sullivan said. 

The district unveiled its new hydration stations in February 2022. It was the first time in years that students and staff could safely drink from a Flint school water fountain. 

Flint Community Schools Superintendent Kevelin Jones raises his cup alongside teachers, students, board members, and media after taking his first sip of water from one of the new hydration stations at Southwestern Classical Academy on Feb. 8, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

At the board meeting, Sullivan updated the community on results of water sampling conducted in January and July 2022. Her team tested water both entering and leaving the hydration stations, among other tests, to determine the effectiveness of the filtration systems. 

Aside from Eisenhower Elementary School, every building in the district had water entering hydration stations that exceeded 10 parts per billion (ppb) in lead levels in January 2022. The Environmental Protection Agency’s lead trigger level is set at 10 ppb which, if exceeded, requires additional planning, monitoring and treatment. Sampling across district buildings showed no detectable lead in water leaving the hydration stations.

Prior to changing the filters of the hydration stations, the team carried out testing again in July 2022. In terms of the water entering the hydration stations, most buildings had lower averages of maximum lead levels compared to January 2022, Sullivan said. After filtration, there was no detectable lead in water leaving the hydration stations across the district. 

Both across and within district buildings, Sullivan noted, there were large variations of lead levels in water before filtration through the hydration stations. Sullivan echoed previous guidance from Flint Schools Superintendent Kevelin Jones, advising people against drinking directly from district faucets, though the water is safe for hand-washing.  

“It’s really important that the students and staff are drinking from those hydration stations and not directly from a faucet or filling a drinking bottle from a faucet,” she said. 

The hydration stations are connected to a series of filters that include three technologies: activated carbon, a micro-membrane, and ultraviolet light.

The activated carbon removes certain metals including lead. The micro-membrane blocks bacteria and viruses from passing through, and the ultraviolet light then disinfects any remaining toxic particles in the water. 

A $480,000 donation from tech billionaire Elon Musk in 2018 spurred the filter installation project. Since February 2022, people have been able to fill up their water bottles through the hydration stations, but the bubblers, or the spigots of the hydration stations, remain shut off as a COVID-19 precaution.

Hydration stations are seen at the Accelerated Learning Academy in October 2022. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)

In the long run, Sullivan’s team hopes to train students on water sampling and filter maintenance as well as certify them to train their peers. Beyond that, Sullivan said, the team also aims to build the community’s understanding of air quality and implement air quality improvement technologies. They are now laying the groundwork to achieve their vision with a planning grant of $50,000 from the National Science Foundation.

The Accelerated Learning Academy (ALA) currently serves as a starting point for that training, Sullivan said, adding that her team is now working to develop relationships with staff and students. 

ALA Principal Kelly Fields said ALA students will have the opportunity to build their knowledge and interest in future career options such as waterworks service.

Melissa Koronka, a science teacher at ALA, agreed and noted that scholars will get to apply STEM ideas from the classroom. 

“You really do need the science,” Koronka said. “You need to know something about math. You need to understand what engineering goes into these projects.” 

Further, Fields said, “We are empowering [students] to be able to be ambassadors of truth [and] justice. We’re providing them the opportunity … to be part of the water warrior movement.” 

Sullivan and Dr. Nancy Love of University of Michigan are the principal investigators for the National Science Foundation grant. Sullivan said they hope to obtain a secondary grant of $1 million to scale up the project.

Nicholas is Flint Beat’s public health and education reporter. He joins the team as he graduates from Santa Clara University, Calif. Nicholas has previously reported on dementia and brain health, as...