kids drinking from drinking fountains

Cleaner Water Is Coming to All Schools

Published on October 25, 2023

Lead levels are harmful in many schools and childcare centers. With 'Filter First', they soon won't be

Thousands of Michigan children are at risk of lead poisoning. They’ll soon be protected at the places where they spend much of their days.

Last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law “Filter First” legislation, three bills that will require the installation of lead water filters in all schools and childcare centers. Costs will be offset by $50 million dollars set aside (so far) in the state budget.

Schools and daycares should be places where children are safe from dangerous neurotoxins, like lead," said Meli Garcia, regional environmental health organizer for the Ecology Center. “Lead impairs children’s brain development and can trigger serious and irreversible learning, and behavioral problems. Now water that has been sitting for extended periods in school pipes will be filtered before children and staff take a drink. 

The legislation passed with strong bipartisan support in the Michigan Legislature. They were sponsored by Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton Township) and Rep. Cynthia Neeley (D-Flint).

“Michigan lawmakers have just enacted the nation’s strongest measures protecting kids from lead in school and childcare centers,” said Cyndi Roper, Michigan senior policy advocate for NRDC. “These bills implement a solution that actually gets lead out of drinking water while also realizing dramatic cost savings.” 

The legislation’s passage comes after a nationwide Environment America report gave Michigan an F grade for its efforts to remove lead from school drinking water. With “Filter First” legislation becoming law, the ranking would be boosted to an A.

Research by Elin Betanzo of Safe Water Engineering LLC revealed that 89% of the 114 schools and childcare facilities that voluntarily submitted water samples to the state had dangerous amounts of lead in their water.

Lead stunts mental, physical, and social development. Young children, whose minds and bodies are growing most, are especially at risk. No amount of lead is safe.

View lead contamination levels in select school districts and all communities.

The filters will prevent lead found in fountains and taps from leaching into the water that children and staff drink. Lead leaching is possible in water fixtures new and old and is especially prevalent in those left unused for long periods of time. That makes schools and childcare centers, with their many breaks and weekend closures, especially prone to lead contamination.

“We have monitored hydration stations in older school buildings in Michigan and have hundreds of data points,” said Nancy Love, a distinguished university professor at the University of Michigan. “Bottom line: Lead exists in buildings without lead service lines, and hydration stations with properly maintained filters work to remove lead below detection. The Filter First legislation is a game changer for Michigan’s children.”

“There has not been a bigger moment in the lead poisoning fight since lead paint was banned 45 years ago,” said Charlotte Jameson, chief policy officer for the Michigan Environmental Council. “Momentum is on our side. We can make lead poisoning history, not current reality.”

The policy within the legislation, dubbed “Filter First,” is more effective than replacing water infrastructure outright because even new plumbing contains lead. It is also hundreds of millions of dollars cheaper and much faster to implement, according to an analysis prepared by NRDC for the Filter First Coalition, a 40-member group that has advocated for such policies for over five years.

The legislation’s passage comes as other transformational lead prevention efforts are realized. Gov. Whitmer also approved the widely bipartisan effort to get all toddlers routinely tested for lead poisoning, and legislation to get more homes tested and treated for lead contamination is moving through the political process.

“Michigan has recently passed two important pieces of legislation to move the needle on lead poisoning of Michigan children,” said Mary Sue Schottenfels, staff member with Wayne State University’s Detroit Lead Parent Advocacy Group. “Filter First assures safe drinking water in Michigan schools and Universal Lead Testing makes sure that ALL Michigan children will be tested for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2. Although we need to do more to eradicate lead poisoning in our State, this is real and meaningful progress.”