A plan to install lead and antimicrobial filters at Orleans Parish public schools has hit a snag. It turns out that the antimicrobial filters require much higher water pressure than the Sewerage and Water Board (SWB) provides.
According to a report by The Lens, the filters being installed at the schools would require a booster pump be placed on many school water fountains. Without them, the filters reduced water pressure so much that the fountains become unusable. Apparently, the district has known about the issue for months, but the issue didn’t become public until late March of this year.
That was when 13-year-old Bernard Voss-Potts used a home water testing kit to test the water at Homer A. Plessy Community School as part of a student NPR podcast challenge. The home test indicated the presence of lead in the school’s drinking water, prompting the school to shut down all of its drinking fountains and bring in bottled water for students instead.
Plans to install filters at the school were stepped up but immediately ran into the water pressure problem. On April 1, the school sent a letter home to parents explaining that water pressure at the school didn’t meet the minimum requirements of the filters.
Now the Orleans Parish School Board has decided to drop the plan to install the antimicrobial filters, focusing solely on lead filters instead.
The antimicrobial filtration was originally a requirement for the filters because Orleans Parish School Board officials were concerned about microbes that could enter pipes during a citywide boil-water alert similar to the one that happened last January. Those types of boil-water advisories usually lead to schools canceling classes.
However, while a residential filter certified to remove lead only costs around $50, the filters that meet the antimicrobial requirement cost between $584 and $694.
Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin that can cause brain damage and serious developmental delays in younger children. In 2016, as news coverage of the lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan was hitting its peak, the Orleans Parish School District and the state-run Recovery School District announced a plan to test for lead in the local schools. But those tests never happened.
The plan was dropped after the SWB questioned the testing methods proposed by the company hired to do the testing. The SWB believed only schools built before Hurricane Katrina would need to be tested, while the plan called for a mix of schools. They also didn’t agree with the recommendation that a school’s water fixture be shut off if it tested at 10 parts per billion.
The Centers for Disease Control has found that lead levels as low as 5 parts per billion can cause developmental problems, but the city of New Orleans does not take action until the city’s test results show lead levels across the city as a whole above 15 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t recommend school drinking fountains be taken out of service until lead levels exceed 20 parts per billion.
After SWB’s objections, the plan to test lead levels was dropped, and the focus shifted to mitigation through the installation of filters. But the water pressure issue has made installation of the filters a slow-moving process. On May 2, 2019, Orleans Parish School District Communications Director Tania hall told The Lens that 37 schools, about half the schools in the district, had filters installed. An additional 20 schools had received filters but had water pressure too low to connect them.
“Now the district will shift away from this filter/booster pump approach and install an adjusted version of the filter that will ensure proper lead filtration, but can operate at lower water pressure,” an announcement from the school district states. “This change will help ensure these filtration systems remain functional and will also decrease maintenance costs.”
The district has a self-imposed deadline of Aug. 1 to have all filters installed.
Jenn Bentley is a freelance journalist and editor whose work has been featured in publications such as The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_