Detroit turns off every public school’s drinking water due to high levels of lead, copper

For Michigan, it's just the latest turn in the state's ongoing water crisis.

With days before students are expected to return, the superintendent of Detroit's public schools has ordered the immediate shut off of all drinking water. (Getty Images)
With days before students are expected to return, the superintendent of Detroit's public schools has ordered the immediate shut off of all drinking water. (Getty Images)

With a new school year less than a week away and teachers back on the job as of Monday of this week, schools throughout the Detroit Public Schools Community District will be without drinking water after tests detected elevated levels of lead and copper. As Annalise Frank of Crain’s Detroit reported, Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of Michigan’s largest school district ordered that the water be shut off “immediately,” and informed school staff of his decision in an email that went out Tuesday afternoon.

Per Crain’s Detroit:

Vitti ordered testing of all schools this spring, after tests in 2016 found elevated levels of the metals. Initial results for 24 schools returned last week found 16 had levels higher than acceptable, he said in the emailed letter. All water sources, including drinking fountains and sinks, were tested. Water is still available for hand washing and toilet flushing.

“Although we have no evidence that there are elevated levels of copper or lead in our other schools (over 50) where we are awaiting test results, out of an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of our students and employees, I am turning off all drinking water in our schools until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools,” Vitti said in an emailed statement Wednesday morning.

Crain’s Detroit reports that the results of the testing were not immediately available, but that in April of 2016, elevated levels of lead and copper were detected in 19 schools within the Detroit school district. The well-publicized lead water crisis in Flint, Mich. prompted the testing round. At least one expert told Crain’s Detroit that such water contaminations “could be found nationwide, wherever school authorities spend the time and money to look.”

And in Michigan, seemingly wherever such an effort has been made, it has reliably revealed a crisis in water safety. As ThinkProgress reported back in July, two communities in Kalamazoo County faced a public health crisis after tests detected “high amounts” of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their water supply. Officials were “unsure how the man-made chemicals entered the water source” but ordered bottled water to be supplied to the City of Parchment and Cooper Township due to the dangerous health ramifications posed by PFAS, which include an increased “risk of cancer and liver disease, among other hazards.”


Around the same time, an investigation by PBS’s Frontline found that “contaminated water in Flint may have killed almost ten times the number of people as the official count currently indicates, through a rare form of pneumonia.” Flint still has lead-tainted water.

In June, Michigan enacted new regulatory measures to mitigate these water crises, but while they are the strictest such regulations in the country, Michigan residents will have to endure a long wait before feeling their impact: One such mandatory requirement, the replacement of nearly 500,000 lead service lines across the state, is not expected to get underway until 2021. The replacement of Flint’s own pipes is expected to take another two years.

Michigan’s compounded water woes have become a major talking point for candidates throughout the state’s midterm primary season. In recent months, issues of environmental protection and environmental justice have gained a new primacy among some of the Democratic Party’s newest faces, many of whom are running on a platform they call a “Green New Deal.” Many of the candidates driving the conversation are young women of color running on platforms focused on environmental justice.