The Baltimore school system is taking steps to make drinking from school water fountains safe again, a decade after lead contamination prompted officials to ban students from using them.
A Minnesota company will install and test filters on fountains at school system headquarters and two elementary schools this summer. If the lead removal system works as planned, the school system would seek bids to install filters across nearly 160 schools in Baltimore and end 10 years of reliance on bottled water.
Yellow warning tape and bright red signs have instructed students not to drink the water after inspectors found old pipes were leaching lead into the water flowing to schools.
"We feel that this is the type of technology that will significantly reduce the problem that the school system has experienced for the past two decades," said J. Keith Scroggins, the system's chief operating officer.
Supporters of the effort say it will be good for students — and help as the city works to market its schools and increase enrollment.
"It's hard for a parent deciding whether they should bring their kid to city schools when you walk in and the big sign above the drinking fountain says, 'Don't drink,' " said Martha James-Hassan, a school board member.
But school officials may have a difficult time selling the new filtering system to a skeptical public.
"If it doesn't work, who do the parents sue?" asked Larry Gaines, who was on the school system's parent advisory council when the lead issue was discovered years ago. "You are talking about health and wellness."
Gaines questions whether the district should be investing in the filters at a time when administrators have had to make tough budget cuts.
"We just laid off people because of money problems," he said. "The dust hasn't settled yet, and now they are saying they want to try a $3 million experiment?"
Officials shut down drinking fountains throughout the school system in 2007 after testing found widespread lead contamination. Scroggins said the water supply to the fountains was shut off, though some schools added warning signs anyhow. Water for hand washing continues to flow from bathroom sinks, where signs warn it is not safe to drink.
The district now spends about half a million dollars annually to supply water jugs and coolers to schools. Newer city schools have been built with filters and lead-free pipes.
Replacing all the old fountains and installing the filtering system in fountains, kitchens and health suites throughout city schools would cost $3.3 million. The system does not plan to filter water in bathrooms. The annual cost for filters everywhere else would be slightly less than the school district spends on bottled water.
"It's going to be of interest to people in Baltimore that we're really, finally addressing this," said Cheryl Casciani, a member of the city school board. "We've known you couldn't replace all the pipes, and people have been sympathetic to that. But it's also somewhat annoying that all these years later we're still doing it."
The system that will be tested was developed recently by EcoWater Systems LLC in Minnesota to filter lead and other sediments out of the water. The filters are housed in tamper-proof, metal cabinets installed on the wall beside a drinking fountain. When a certain number of gallons of water has gone through the filter, it automatically shuts off the fountain until the filter is changed.
The automatic shutoff is key, said Malcolm Kahn, senior vice president of innovation for Marmon Water Inc. EcoWater is a division of Marmon. Khan said the technology to absorb lead in water has existed for more than a decade, and the company has sold commercial and residential filter systems. The company developed a different system specifically for schools and has been selling that for about two years.
"We went to this auto shut-off approach. It guarantees the parents and the administrators that it is serviced properly," Kahn said.
The EcoWater Systems filters are certified by NSF International, a nonprofit formerly called the National Sanitation Foundation that certifies devices to protect food and water. The Maryland Department of the Environment believes the NSF certification provides a level of certainty, said Jay Apperson, the department spokesman.
Mona Rock, a spokeswoman for the city health department, said she is confident that lead-reduction filters "do in fact remove lead." The agency has tested them at Hampstead Hill Academy, a public elementary/middle school in Canton, where they have been used for years, she said.
Scroggins, the school district COO, called the filters "a proven technology."
A law passed this year by the Maryland General Assembly requires all schools, public and private, to regularly test their water for lead. The Maryland Department of the Environment is currently writing regulations that will take effect next July. Del. Stephen Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said he grew concerned by reports of lead in water across the country and felt comprehensive testing should be required to ensure students are drinking uncontaminated water
EcoWater Systems will install the filters in the trial program this summer at school district headquarters on North Avenue, Lakeland Elementary/Middle in South Baltimore and Yorkwood Elementary in Northeast Baltimore. The drinking water at these sites will be tested before and after filtration systems are installed and compared to the bottled water. Once the water is tested, students and teachers in the buildings for summer programs will be able to drink from the fountains.
Baltimore's water supply is widely considered among the best in the nation. It has won high marks for taste, but aging school pipes — the city has the oldest schools in Maryland — contaminate the water before it flows from drinking fountains.
Problems surfaced in the early 1990s after school district officials tested the water from fountains and sinks. At some schools they found lead levels higher than 20 parts per billion, the safety standard at the time set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Administrators shut off the fountains that exceeded safe lead levels and delivered water coolers. In the early 2000s, James Williams Sr., a Parent Teacher Association member, led an aggressive campaign to have drinking fountains previously found to have high levels of lead reinspected. Williams found many were again in use; in some cases, principals didn't know their schools' water was dangerous.
Since 2007, the district has supplied jugs of water to schools at a cost of nearly $5 million overall.
In the wake of the widely publicized lead water scandal in Flint, Mich., Baltimore school officials are proceeding with care.
"We are taking the steps very carefully. We are not trying to do everything in one fell swoop," Scroggins said. "We've done pre-testing and we will do post-testing."
The school board would seek bids from companies before any district-wide rollout, officials said. EcoWater filters will cost $8,500 to $10,500 per building for the two schools and headquarters where they are being tested.
Matt Hornbeck, principal of Hampstead Hill Academy, said he sought permission from the district to install water filters after the school system provided water coolers.
"I got frustrated with the need of my staff to lift these unbelievably heavy water jugs and carry them all over the building," he said.
Hornbeck's request was approved and the filters were installed.
"We've tested the water over the years and it continues to be very good in terms of drinking standards," he said.
Parents and teachers may be skeptical, Hornbeck said, but they will be won over by filtered water.
"I was a convert," he said.